Mayor bucks feds on illegal immigrant children's detention center

A Texas non-profit confirmed Friday that it has signed a lease on a large warehouse near downtown Houston to house the children of illegal immigrants. At one time the facility housed homeless women and families displaced by Hurricane Harvey. Southwest Key Programs applied for a general residence operating license for holding up to 240 children between the ages of 0-17.

Southwest Key Programs, a Texas nonprofit that has a lucrative contract with the federal government to care for thousands of unaccompanied immigrant children, confirmed Friday it has signed a lease with the owner of the warehouse at 419 Emancipation Ave.

Its application with the state requests a general residential operating license to hold up to 240 children between the ages of “0 to 17.” Several stakeholders who work with immigrant minors said they have been told the facility would largely serve “tender age” children who are younger than 12, as well as pregnant and nursing teenagers.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement, under the Department of Health and Human Services, is responsible for unaccompanied illegal immigrant children. This center is being labeled the first to hold such young children without their parents. President Trump’s decision to enforce zero tolerance via the Justice Department is being blamed. Former President Obama, labeled the Deporter-in-Chief by detractors never enforced the policy.

But under the administration’s new strategy, children as young as 18 months who arrive with their parents have been forced into government custody while the adults serve brief sentences for the misdemeanor crime before going to immigrant detention centers, and in some cases being deported without their children.

Departments of Justice and Homeland Security officials on Friday reiterated their position that they are simply fully enforcing a law that has been on the books for decades and that parents cannot be exempt from prosecution simply because they are traveling with children. They have argued the strategy is necessary to solve a “crisis” at the southern border and to deter others who may be contemplating coming to the United States..

Though overall illegal crossings are at their lowest in decades, the number of families and children, many asylum-seekers from Central America, rose another 14 percent in May to almost 16,000, reaching levels last seen during President Barack Obama’s administration.

This is the catch – the law has been on the books for some time (children can’t go to jail with illegal immigrant parents to serve the time sentenced on their misdemeanor before the parents go to a detention center.)  Usually, the children go to other family or legal guardians to wait for their parents to be processed. Very young children and pregnant teens were typically turned over to foster families. Illegal border crossings have increased in recent months, though, and Homeland Security is being overwhelmed. New facilities are opening to handle to overflow. So far about 2,000 children have been separated under the zero-tolerance policy.

This is where Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, enters the picture. He announced on June 7, 2018 that he signed a letter joining the mayors of Los Angeles, Tucson, and Albuquerque asking the federal government to stop enforcing the zero-tolerance policy. The letter went to both Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

Then, on Saturday during the city’s annual Juneteenth parade and celebration, Mayor Turner addressed his determination to keep the proposed children’s detention center out of Houston. Juneteenth is a very important celebration in the Houston area, as it is the commemoration of the announcement of the ending of slavery in Texas on June 19, 1865. So, as the mayor attended the annual parade, he (or his staff) tweeted out his thoughts on the center.

Turner, a Democrat, is also vying for Houston to be the location of the 2020 DNC convention. “Loud and clear” indeed, Mayor Turner.

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