Texas shelters for unaccompanied migrant children will no longer have state oversight after a provision of a border “disaster” proclamation from Gov. Greg Abbott took effect this week.
In May, Abbott declared a disaster at the Texas-Mexico border in response to increased unauthorized immigration. The proclamation included orders to migrants for “criminal trespassing” and to terminate state licenses, beginning Aug. 30, for shelters that temporarily house unaccompanied migrant children.
Under federal law, children who arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border alone are transferred into the care of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement and are allowed to apply for legal immigration status in the U.S.
There were 5,542 children housed at 45 shelters in Texas operating under federal grants as of Tuesday, according to the state Health and Human Services Commission.
Before pandemic social distance practices reduced the number of beds available, the Texas shelters had capacity to house more than 8,600 children — representing about 64% of HHS’ permanent shelter capacity nationwide, about 13,500 beds.
The shelters can continue operating, per a state Health and Human Services Commission emergency order issued after the governor’s declaration. But they will no longer be monitored by the state.
“It does mean that protections that would have been there for children under Texas state licensing are no longer there, and they are no longer subject to monitoring or state enforcement of standards,” said Mark Greenberg, senior policy fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C.
Two large providers of shelters and services for unaccompanied migrant children in Texas said they intended to comply with Texas minimum standards, even after Texas discontinues their licenses.
Nonprofit BCFS Health and Human Services run eight shelters in Texas — including two facilities in El Paso — with capacity to host about 1,300 children. A spokeswoman for the company said BCFS is setting up a monitoring division that will be housed under the parent company, separate from the residential service division that runs the shelters.
The monitoring division will report directly to the company’s chief executive.
“It’s going to ensure clear lines of separation and transparency,” the spokeswoman said. “We have no intention of discontinuing services for our kiddos. Our No. 1 priority has to be the safety of our kids.”
Caliburn Corp.’s Comprehensive Health Services runs six shelters in Texas with capacity to house about 2,000 unaccompanied children, including a 512-bed facility in El Paso.
The company declined to speak with the El Paso Times but indicated it would continue to abide by Texas’ standard operating procedures.
Another large nonprofit operator of shelters for unaccompanied minors, Southwest Key, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
“All 45 general residential operations that contract with the Office of Refugee Resettlement have notified (the state Health and Human Services Commission) of their intention to operate an exempt operation,” said HHSC spokeswoman Christine Mann. “HHSC will cease inspections and oversight of facilities that operate under the exemption after August 30.”
There is no federal licensure for facilities that temporarily house unaccompanied migrant children on behalf of the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement. Historically, shelters have been required to seek licenses in the states where they operate.
At the federal level, the HHS Office of the Inspector General investigates problems in the nationwide shelter system and has found challenges in providing mental health care for children, problems with data capture in the “significant incident” reporting system, management of shelter contracts, among other issues.
In the past, shelters in the HHS network have also faced serious allegations of maltreatment and misconduct, including child molestation.
“Operation of these important facilities without state or federal oversight makes them ripe for abuse,” said Marisa Limón Garza, deputy director of El Paso’s Hope Border Institute, which advocates for immigrant rights.
“The federal government must act quickly to protect these children and respect their unique needs in light of Gov. Abbott’s proclamation and these new rules,” she said. “It’s appalling to know that the care of children, some of the most vulnerable in our communities, has been reduced to a campaign re-election tool.”
Meanwhile, since March, HHS has relied on “emergency intake” shelters set up around the country to house thousands of unaccompanied minors; the shelters erected in tents or convention centers were unlicensed.
The largest of the so-called “emergency intake sites,” set up at Fort Bliss in El Paso, has been saddled with allegations of mismanagement.
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