HARLINGEN — A growing number of federally funded shelters are holding thousands of migrant children in the Rio Grande Valley.
Meanwhile, the shelters are employing thousands of residents in one of poorest regions in the United States.
Along the U.S.-Mexico border, the Valley has become the main entry point for Central American migrants, including tens of thousands of children who are detained without parents or guardians.
“The number of people entering the country is very high,” Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, said this past week.
Pimentel, who has guided more than 100,000 Central American refugees on their paths to new lives since 1982, said violence in Central American countries continues to drive high numbers of migrants to the border.
From October to July, U.S. Border Patrol agents detained 191,768 families as well as 31,125 children traveling without parents or guardians — the highest numbers in years.
“The people continue to come because of the situation back home,” Pimentel said. “From the stories we hear, the violence doesn’t stop and it’s difficult to work and be safe so they have to find a safe place for their children to grow up.”
Meanwhile, government officials have revised policy to require federally funded shelters to increase migrant children’s detentions to conduct more thorough background checks on sponsors to whom children may be released.
“Where it used to take two or three weeks, now it’s three or four months,” Jodi Goodwin, a Harlingen attorney who handles immigration cases, said.
In the Valley, 13 shelters are holding thousands of migrant children, Ophelia de los Santos, director of Catholic Charities’ Jail Ministries, said.
“They spend a total of two or three months in there before they’re reunited (with family) or sent back to their home country,” she said.
Now, two new shelters are opening while others expand.
For years, attorneys such as Goodwin have entered the shelters to represent undocumented children.
“They serve a purpose for unaccompanied minors so they don’t go to adult detention,” she said.
“They kind of look like group homes,” Goodwin said of the shelters. “They have common areas like a living room, a hallway with bedrooms with four to six kids housed in bunk-bed-style beds. Usually each kid has a locker or trunk to put their stuff and one child-care worker assigned to each room.”
But recently, across the country, reports of poor living conditions and physical and sexual abuse in some shelters are drawing concern.
Some shelters became politicized symbols in the controversy surrounding the detention of migrant children, drawing politicians from across the country.
In the Valley, the shelters employ more than 5,000 residents.
“It does have a definite economic impact positively on our economy,” Pat Hobbs, executive director of Cameron Workforce Solutions in Brownsville, said. “They do hire a lot of people and for everyone they hire that money rolls in the economy seven times.”
In Raymondville, a new company named SOG International has partnered with Sunny Glen Children’s Home, which has housed abused and neglected children in San Benito since 1936, to open a shelter to house 500 children.
“My company saw the need to provide shelter care,” said Wayne Lowry, SOG’s president and chief executive officer, who used to serve as executive director of Habitat for Humanity of the Rio Grande Valley.
The shelter, set to open in mid November at the site of a former 100,000-square-foot Walmart store, is expected to hire as many as 600 employees.
Weslaco-based SOG includes Lowry, businessman Joaquin Spamer and McAllen attorney Luis Cantu.
Spamer, owner of Mission-based Ci Logistics, or CiL, the largest distributor of U.S. cotton in Mexico, bought the former Walmart building, turning it into a warehouse to serve Willacy County cotton growers.
Lowry, former chairman of Sunny Glen’s board of directors, said SOG approached Sunny Glen to operate the shelter.
“We just felt the most comfortable with the standards at Sunny Glen,” he said.
Lowry said he didn’t help pick Sunny Glen just because Chase Palmer, the home’s executive director, used to be his roommate at Sam Houston State University.
“Definitely, when you’re working with people you know and you know their quality, it’s an important part of the process,” Lowry said, referring to his friendship with Palmer.
Lowry said Sunny Glen responded to a federal proposal to open a shelter to house migrant children detained after crossing the border without parents or guardians.
“It’s based on our ability to perform at the highest quality of care,” he said of the group’s success in landing a contract with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.
At the shelter, “the safety and well being of the children is our number-one priority,” Lowry said.
Sunny Glen, he said, “assures staff is properly trained so that if they see something that seems inappropriate, they report it.”
“We’re using the highest level of technology,” Lowry said. “The security system will allow us to have better control of the areas the kids are in. We’re going to be able to document, record and monitor to make sure they’re safe.”
In Los Fresnos, a Florida-based shelter rivals the school district as the city’s top employer.
Now, Comprehensive Health Services is expanding two of its three shelters, Los Fresnos City Manager Mark Milum said.
Last year, the organization launched its shelter operation after locally-based International Educational Services lost its federal contract in March, laying off about 800 employees.
Now, Comprehensive Health Services rivals the Los Fresnos school district as the city’s biggest employers, each with about 1,500 employees.
“They’ve expanded quite a bit,” Milum said. “They’ve been doing that since the day they started — serving more people. They have to have so many staff per kid.”
In McAllen, Austin-based Upbring plans to open a second shelter, de los Santos, of Catholic Charities, said.
In Cameron County, international organizations continue to house thousands of children, employing about as many residents.
With six shelters, Southwest Key, with 3,350 employees, is licensed to house 2,300 children, spokesman Neil Nowlin stated.
In 2013, the Austin-based organization opened its San Benito shelters at the former Dolly Vinsant Memorial Hospital and the former Atrium Place Rehabilitation and Nursing Center.
Then in 2017, Southwest Key opened a 208,000-square-foot shelter at a former Walmart store, now housing about 1,500 children.
Meanwhile, BCFS operates a 593-bed shelter employing 886 staff in Harlingen and a 50-bed shelter in Raymondville, employing 97 workers, spokeswoman Krista Piferrer stated.
Central American surge
In 2014, tens of thousands of Central American migrants spiked illegal crossings along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Amid the influx, thousands of migrant children traveling without parents or guardians were detained, sparking a push for more shelters.
Since then, high numbers of Central Americans continue to trek to the border.
However, the recent influx pales compared with record numbers reached in 2000, when arrests along the U.S.-Mexico border climbed to 1.6 million before the federal government took new enforcement steps, including doubling the number of Border Patrol agents.