Concerns raised about group housing migrant girls here
In one of Houston’s industrial parks near Bush Intercontinental Airport, the 114,400-square-foot building looks like any other warehouse in the area. Like many of the built-to-suit commercial facilities in the park, the well-kept building features a contemporary front entrance to the lobby and loading docks for trucks.
Unlike other warehouses in the park, however, this one is not housing cargo. It is a new emergency intake unit for unaccompanied migrant girls. But the facility, opened earlier this month, is raising questions among immigration advocates and lawyers who have experience working with migrant children.
The National Association of Christian Churches, a disaster-relief agency based in Houston, was awarded a federal contract to house unaccompanied minors who had been detained at the southwest border.
About a dozen organizations and lawyers reached by the Houston Chronicle expressed concern or surprise about the shelter and NACC, which has no track record sheltering or working with unaccompanied children or immigrants in general. Among them are Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of GalvestonHouston, which has a long history of sheltering immigrant children, the managing attorney at the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative, and FIEL
Houston, an immigrant-led civil rights organization that has operated in Houston since 2007.
FIEL executive director Cesar Espinosa was concerned about NACC after being turned away when he offered translators, volunteers or advice. He was later allowed inside the facility, and his trepidation increased.
“From overcrowding to the heat that these children may experience, (these) are just a few questions that lin
ger in my mind after witnessing for myself the conditions in which these children are currently being stored in at a warehouse that once housed dry goods,” said Espinosa.
He toured the shelter a week after it opened and said the girls’ movement is limited to their cot spaces except to go to portable toilets and showers brought to the facility.
“They don’t even have a place to eat. … The food is brought to their cots,” he said.
Instances of inappropriate social distancing were also evident, he said.
NACC didn’t respond to several requests for comment.
As of April 8, the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement reported 452 girls ages 13-17 were being housed at the shelter.
The Biden administration created emergency shelters like the one in Houston to manage the influx of unaccompanied minors coming primarily from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Those three countries are suffering from poverty and violence, and late last year two hurricanes displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
The minors arrive at the southwest border and are in U.S. Customs and Border Patrol facilities until they can be placed in emergency shelters under the custody of U.S. Health and Human Services while waiting to be connected with relatives in the U.S.
What is NACC?
The National Association of Christian Churches is a nonprofit that, according to its website, was founded in 1992 “by a group of pastors that wanted to provide pastors the tools in the everyday running of their churches.” It was incorporated in 2005.
Despite its name, there are no listings of any Christian churches connected with the association. The website says the organization is not a church council but a church resource center.
GuideStar, which reports on charitable organizations, indicates the nonprofit is also known as NACC Disaster Services, with Pastor Jose Ortega recorded as principal officer and president.
NACC has tax-exempt status and is registered as a church organization, which also excludes it from having to file financial reports to the IRS, unlike other types of nonprofits.
Dun & Bradstreet, a commercial credit bureau that tracks the financial information of businesses, indicate the NACC has 15 employees and annual revenues of roughly $810,000.
Although NACC hasn’t managed a shelter for immigrant children before, it has worked on disaster relief projects in Houston and other cities.
When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in August 2017, Ortega and his wife, Angelica, were featured by TV stations in Lumberton, N.C., where they were spending time with their seven children. Jose Ortega had been in the city since the previous October helping flood victims following Hurricane Matthew, the stations reported.
NACC gained some publicity when former Astros outfielder Carlos Beltran mentioned it among people and organizations helping him in a disaster relief campaign for victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017.
The group has assisted local authorities in a COVID-19 vaccination day, and during the February freeze it operated a warming site to shelter the homeless and people stranded in airports. They also helped the city of Houston with food drives during that crisis.
“Their expertise is working in disasters. They’ve been very effective in helping in disasters really around the world,” said U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, who helped the group set up the warming center.
A better job?
Unlike the congresswoman, veteran lawyers and organizations in Houston that routinely work with migrant children don’t have the same confidence in the organization.
“We have never heard about NACC before the government announced the opening of the emergency shelter,” said Julie Pash, managing attorney of the Deportation Defense Houston project at the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative. The collaborative is a coalition of immigration stakeholders such as nonprofits, advocates, law school legal clinics, public agencies and private foundations.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the Office of Refugee Resettlement, said NACC was vetted following standard procedures, under the constraints of the emergency created with the surge of unaccompanied children.
Facilities considered by the governement to be temporary shelters — or emergency intake sites — for unaccompanied minors go through a thorough review process, said Isabel Manuela Estrada Portales, the HHS spokeswoman. Sites such as the NACC Houston shelter are only selected after that review, she said.
Additional capacity to house unaccompanied children has been urgently needed to manage the increasing number of arrivals at the border since February, she said.
As of Monday, there were 18,773 unaccompanied children under the custody of Health and Human Services and 2,962 under Customs and Border Protection.
When the Office of Refugee Resettlement identifies a site to house immigrants, it considers possible modifications to the facility, the availability of infrastructure, location, cost of operating a shelter at the site and other factors that can affect its appropriateness for children, Estrada Portales said.
The NACC site “is providing required standards of care for children, such as clean and comfortable sleeping quarters, meals, toiletries, laundry, recreational activities and access to medical services,” Estrada Portales said.
Unifying kids with family
Other leaders who have visited the NACC site, such as Jackson Lee and U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia, DHouston, have said the children have basic needs covered, and that they are focusing on trying to unite minors with relatives as soon as possible.
Children who have been discharged from HHS shelters spend an average of 37 days in those facilities, according to federal data from February.
As of last week, two children from the NACC shelter have been unified with their families, officials said. Most sponsors are parents or close family relatives.
While FIEL and other advocates focus on urgently releasing children from shelters, others stress proper vetting of the children’s sponsors over speed.
Vetting the sponsors is “an important piece to the reunification process to ensure that a child is not going into the home of an abusive caretaker,” said Elizabeth Sanchez Kennedy, director of the Galveston-Houston Immigrant Representation Project, a group of lawyers and legal professionals who ensure that immigrants in the region have equal access to due process.
NACC “could be equipped to do this work, but I don’t know them,” Sanchez Kennedy said.
Catholic Charities is considered “the gold standard,” said U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. In late March, Cornyn visited a Catholic Charities shelter for unaccompanied minors in Houston.
The director of communications with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of GalvestonHouston said they “have no information about the decision-making process in setting up this emergency shelter” at NACC’s warehouse. Although they were mentioned by the government in a news release as one of the service providers at the new facility, “I assume this was a typo,” said Betsy Ballard. “Perhaps they were referring to a Catholic Charities agency in another city.”
After many immigration programs were closed during the Trump administration, shelters are now being organized overnight, said Sanchez Kennedy. Errors can happen, she said, “especially when caring for children that require certain kinds of specialties that are different from just dealing with immigrants in general. I don’t know if that’s the case here.”
“We have never heard about NACC before the government announced the opening of the emergency shelter.” Julie Pash, managing attorney of the Deportation Defense Houston project at the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative