Dallas emergency shelter for unaccompanied minors closes as Fort Bliss megasite expands

AP Photo/Gregory Bull

The emergency shelter for unaccompanied minors located in the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas is closing. The emergency shelter at Fort Bliss in El Paso is expanding. In a time of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis on the southern border, government officials are still scrambling to house illegal migrants, especially minor teens.

The facility in Dallas is now housing about 200 teenage boys, down from nearly 2,300. They sleep in an exhibit hall lined with rows of cots. The shelter was unlicensed and operated by federal contractors. The idea was to get the minors away from the border in order to protect them from the continuing chaos brought about by tens of thousands of migrants crossing the border illegally. At the time it opened in March, it was said to be scheduled to be in use for 90 days. The Fort Bliss site currently holds about 4,500 children and has the capacity to hold up to 10,000, according to the U.S. Health and Human Services Department spokesperson.

The number of unaccompanied minors fell slightly in April from record numbers in March while the number of adult migrants increased. The open-border crowd does not approve of privately run facilities, choosing instead to support government-run facilities.

The federal housing effort comes amid arrival peaks of unaccompanied migrant teens and children. Some 17,000 minors traveling without a parent or a legal guardian were apprehended in April, following nearly 19,000 in March. In the first three months of the presidency of Joe Biden, more than 45,000 unaccompanied minors have entered the U.S.

The migrant arrivals set off an unprecedented scramble to find shelter for the mostly Guatemalan, Honduran and Salvadoran children. During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, all migration fell sharply and bed space in licensed facilities fell dramatically.

The temporary shelters allowed children to be removed from controversial crowded Border Patrol sites.

“We’re talking about the most vulnerable, people with a great need,” said El Paso Bishop Mark J. Seitz. “We have to rediscover that place in our heart that is willing to reach out to those who are in need.”

The Biden administration, however, cannot keep up with the surge of migrants, the numbers are overwhelming to personnel and resources at the border. There are few options, either turn them away and send them back or hold them in shelters. The teen migrants are not well-served at megasites, according to experts. It is impossible for them to receive the care they need in order to cope with their situation. For example, the site in Dallas houses mostly teenage boys who were grateful to be moved away from the border but soon showed signs of depression. They live in pods of 50. Volunteers come to visit them and bring board games, art supplies, and stationery to write their families to pass the time.

The contract for use of the Dallas convention center expires June 2, and HHS officials wouldn’t confirm that it is likely to close early. Culmen International LLC, which has one of the larger convention center contracts, and Catholic Charities of Dallas, which coordinates volunteers, indicated the Dallas site would be closing earlier, possibly by May 25. Others who work there said the expected closure could be this week.

It now takes an average of 31 days to reunite the children with a sponsor to await processing of their asylum cases, which is down from 40 days at the start of the Biden administration, HHS said.

HHS is less than transparent on what is happening at the Dallas facility. It only says that the administration is working to reunite the teens with adult guardians. Those who are left when it closes will be transferred to another facility.

“If there are teens who have not been unified with a sponsor when it is time to close, they will be relocated to another appropriate facility. … We anticipate that a majority of teens will be unified with their sponsors before the end of May,” a statement read.

HHS didn’t provide a breakdown for the Dallas megasite, though, on how many children were transferred to sponsors, traditional licensed facilities or other unlicensed emergency facilities. They also wouldn’t comment on whether transfers were made to the growing El Paso emergency site or the length of Dallas stays, which many have said is far too long.

Teachers who volunteer are concerned about the lack of educational classes conducted at facilities. It is being left to volunteers to conduct classes on English, U.S. geography, and U.S. currency.

U.S. Rep Veronica Escobar, a Democrat who represents El Paso, is trying to put a positive spin on the situation as more migrants are being moved into Fort Bliss. She can’t spin the fact that she is also concerned about the size of the Fort Bliss facility and the number of migrants it will hold.

U.S. Rep Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, said she worries about the size of the Fort Bliss facility, which is now like a large high school. If it expanded fully to 10,000, it would be like two large high schools. She thinks it would not be a good idea for all the children to be housed in one general area, but added, “The administration, so far, is dealing with the worst possible conditions in the best possible way.”

But advocates are worried about conditions for the children there, too. Many are still troubled by crowded U.S. Border Patrol holding pens, disturbing images from recent months. Ruben Garcia, the El Paso-based executive director of Annunciation House, has spoken to immigrants who were held in those pens.

“People were telling us that they were once squeezed into a cell that was the size of your bedroom in your house, and they would put 40 people in there,” said Garcia, whose group assists many newly released immigrants. “People would take turns standing up so their son or daughter could lay down for a while. It was horrendous, horrendous conditions.”

Escobar is trying to paint a picture of success for Team Biden but the numbers speak for themselves. The administration continues to gaslight Americans with talk of having the border crisis under control and reuniting children with family and guardians. Children are being sent to the border because they have received the message from Joe Biden that they will be taken in and cared for instead of being returned to their families in their home countries. What happens next is completely predictable. The needs outweigh the resources and the children are paying the price.