Despite years of increased border security and mass deportations, the flood of children entering the United States from other countries without an adult guardian continues to pour over the Rio Grande.
This ongoing scenario forces officials who are tasked with caring for these unaccompanied minors to continue finding places to house them.
In the Rio Grande Valley, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which is legally required to provide shelter to these children, has turned to non-profits and faith-based organizations for help.
There are nearly a dozen of these shelters operating in the Valley, according to officials working with HHS. Negotiations are under way for a 27-acre property in Mission owned by the Rio Grande Valley Baptist Church to be converted into one of these facilities, according to Othal E. Brand Jr., executive director of the Harlingen-based Valley Baptist Missions Education Center.
Brand said ORR approached them late last year to turn the Valley Baptist Retreat, located on Stewart Road just south of Bus. 83, into a permanent shelter that could house anywhere between 85 to 100 children, but the first time they were approached by HHS was nine years ago.
Valley Baptist operates a shelter in Harlingen that houses 250 boys, Brand said. He said services at the shelter are provided by licensed caretakers and Valley Baptist helps by providing some of the meals for the children.
He did not disclose many details about the center other than it had accommodations that compared to some of the Valley’s nicest hotels.
“You just figure if you were a 16-year-old and you traveled 1,500 miles to get here…through three international boundaries having to cheat, lie, and steal and hide, to get across because you had no papers,” Brand said.
“And you get here and you get picked up and you get taken to a facility and the first thing they give you is a physical, five immunization shots, a brand new set of clothes, and a brand new set of tennis shoes, and then they proceed to feed you three hot meals a day, give you a clean bedroom, air conditioned, clean sheets, towels, all of the stuff you need and then you go to three or four classes a day, then you either get to go outside and play basketball, soccer, or volleyball. These kids are happy, I see them. They are well behaved kids,” he added.
HOW IT WORKS
In the first four months of fiscal year 2017 more than 16,000 unaccompanied children fleeing violence, poverty, or who are trying to reunite with their families already in the U.S., crossed the Rio Grande and were apprehended by immigration officials in this sector, according to the latest data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Most of these children apprehended and processed by the Department of Homeland Security are then placed in the custody of U.S. Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement. ORR is mandated under the Homeland Security Act of 2002 to provide basic child care in the least restrictive setting, according to the HHS website.
Children spend 35 days on average at the shelters and do not integrate into the local community while in custody of HHS, according to information provided by ORR officials. These children do not attend local schools, and have a minimal impact other than creating new jobs, according to Brand.
He estimates the new facility in Mission could bring up to 300 new jobs for the city.
HHS would not share any of the terms or costs of the contract they are negotiating with Valley Baptist Church stating, “The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) has no update on the funding opportunity announcement (FOA) currently in progress.”
For its first nine years ORR served anywhere between 7,000 and 8,000 children annually, but this number jumped drastically in fiscal year 2012 (October 1, 2011 – September 30, 2012) when they received more than 13,000 children. In FY2013 the program received 24,668 unaccompanied children referrals from DHS, followed by 57,496 in FY 2014 and 33, 726 in FY2015, according to HHS statistics.
The children come primarily from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. In FY 2015, approximately three-quarters of all children referred were over 14 years of age, and two-thirds were boys, according to HHS.
IN THE VALLEY
In Brownsville a Walmart Super Center is scheduled to open later this month that could house up to 1,200 children and be the largest in the U.S., according to Brand. The 208,000-square-foot facility is owned and operated by Southwest Key Programs. The national non-profit currently operates five shelters for unaccompanied migrant children in Cameron County, according to an October news release announcing the acquisition of their new facility in downtown Brownsville.
Brand said there are at least a half dozen other centers in the Valley run by non-profit faith based organizations in Brownsville, Raymondville, McAllen, Harlingen, San Benito and Los Fresnos. HHS officials would not disclose the number of facilities operating in the Valley or how many they are currently negotiating or readying to open but did say they are currently operating 100 shelters in 11 states.
“ORR has policies in place to ensure the privacy, safety and well-being of unaccompanied children. In order to protect the privacy and security of the children, their locations are kept confidential and we do not identify individual unaccompanied children. For security reasons, we do not release the names and locations of the permanent, state-licensed shelters,” reads a statement from HHS.
At each of these centers state licensed ORR-funded care providers offer mental and health services, classroom education, case management, socialization and recreation, and family reunification services, according to a fact sheet written by the department’s Administration for Children and Families.
ORR is responsible for releasing unaccompanied children to qualified sponsors and family members who are determined to be capable of providing for the child’s physical and mental well-being. Residential care services begin once ORR accepts a child and ends when they are released from ORR custody, turn 18 years of age, or the child’s immigration case results in a final disposition of removal from the U.S, according to the fact sheet.
Children have been placed with sponsors in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The top three states are California, Texas, and New York. So far this fiscal year, 3,350 unaccompanied children have been placed in six counties across Texas, none in the Valley.
Most of them, 1,717, were placed in Harris County, followed by 566 in Dallas, and 241 in Travis, HHS data shows. It is unclear how many of these children crossed through the Rio Grande border patrol sector, which continues to be the busiest for illegal crossings across the Southwest border.