Migrant shelters at 93% capacity
Almost 5,100 children are being held in the Texas youth facilities.
The number of unaccompanied minor children held in Texas shelters reached a new high in September, months after the administration of President Donald Trump ended its policy of separating immigrant children from their parents at the border.
There were 5,099 children living at privately run shelters for unaccompanied youth as of Sept. 20, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which regulates the federally funded shelters. That’s a record high under the Trump administration, up from 4,936 children last month.
Asked to explain the increase, an agency spokeswoman directed questions to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. Officials there did not immediately respond to an email.
Shelters are meant to serve as a temporary home for children after they arrive in the U.S., typically without an adult, before they can be placed with U.S.-
based sponsors such as family or friends. It’s unclear how much of increase can be attributed to a greater number of unaccompanied children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, and how much is the result of federal policies that have slowed the rate at which children are paired with sponsors.
Most of the children arrived in the U.S. unaccompanied, but across the country there remain more than 400 children who were separated from their parents under the Trump administration’s now-paused “zero tolerance” policy. The federal government classifies those children as “unaccompanied,” so the data cannot answer how many of them are currently living in Texas shelters.
In April, after the U.S. Department of Justice first made public its hard-line policy of detaining unauthorized adult immigrants — while their children were sent to private shelters — more than 2,000 children arrived at the more than 30 shelters licensed in Texas.
The policy sent a massive influx of children to shelters, which swelled to capacity, and private groups filed permits to open four new facilities in Texas. The Health and Human Services Commission issued initial permits for three of those shelters, which will be located in South Texas and operated by Florida-based Comprehensive Health Services Inc., in August. A fourth facility, proposed to be opened in Houston by the Austin-based nonprofit Southwest Key, is at the center of a lawsuit in which shelter operators allege the city has obstructed their efforts.
Even after zero tolerance ended, the number of children living in shelters has remained high. Many existing facilities have asked regulators for permission to add more beds. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission may decide to grant shelters a capacity variance, which allows them to house more children than they would otherwise be allowed to.
State officials have so far approved 16 facilities to increase their number of beds. As of Sept. 20, there are 5,099 children in state-licensed shelters, which have permission to accommodate up to 5,489 children, according to the health commission. That puts overall capacity at about 93 percent.
Those shelters, licensed as child care providers, have a long history of regulatory inspections that have uncovered serious health and safety deficiencies.
A Texas Tribune review of state records found that, over the last three years, inspectors have found 435 health and safety violations at the facilities, which can house anywhere from 20 to more than 1,500 children at a time. Of those, regulators coded 139 violations as “high” in severity and 166 as “medium high.”
The facilities are required to provide basic care to the children of detained migrants, including medical care and at least six hours of daily schooling. Their inspection reports, though often light on details, paint a picture of the abuses that young children may face in a foreign environment where many face language barriers and a history of trauma from the journey to the U.S.
Another shelter, a hastily built tent city in Tornillo, is being greatly expanded to handle the influx of children.
Officials this month said the facility will grow to 3,800 beds — more than 10 times its original capacity to house 360 children. But that facility, a federal installation overseen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is not regulated by the state, officials said, so it is not reflected in the data, which is current as of Sept. 20.
Austin-based private contractor Southwest Key Programs operates Casa Padre, a converted Walmart in Brownsville, as a shelter for more than 1,500 unaccompanied minors. Southwest Key wants to open a facility in Houston.