Report: Over-capacity child immigrant shelters approved by state officials

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — At least 15 shelters that house immigrant children in Texas have been operating over capacity, and the state gave them permission to do it, according to a report by the Texas Observer

The state’s Health and Human Services department granted temporary capacity increases to the facilities that have seen an influx of children following immigration policies enforced by President Donald Trump’s administration.

The report indicates more than 700 children ere allowed beyond the capacity of the 15 shelters statewide. Some locations only saw single-digit increases, while others were approved for more than 100 extra kids.

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission oversees licensing for facilities like the shelters the Office of Refugee Resettlement contracts with, including 15 shelters with increased capacity. The increase allowed for an additional 722 children to be housed at those facilities, according to records initially released to the Texas Observer.

“We have approved variances for certain shelters as part of our overall regulatory role in Texas over residential operations,” according to an HHSC spokesperson. HHSC’s standards are based on factors such as sleeping arrangements, living and recreational space and compliance with fire inspections.
The 15 shelters are operated by two different nonprofit organizations in Texas: BCFS Health and Human Services and Southwest Key Programs.

Southwest Key Programs  released a statement Wednesday night on the separation of immigrant families, saying it “does not support separating families at the border,” and it works to reunite each child who comes through the door with a family member while striving to “provide the kind of service that will help them thrive.”

State Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-Clint, visited the tent city in Tornillo, Texas, a town in her district, about 45 minutes south of El Paso. She wanted to visit a shelter in her district which she worried would also be at risk for overcrowding.

Gonzalez said she sneaked into the tent city Friday night after dark, and described seeing mostly teenagers in the tents.

“Twenty beds for 20 kids, boys 16 and 17-year-old boys, not children, not infants or four-year-olds,” she described, “and there’s adult supervision, there’s medical care, there’s caseworkers and there’s therapists.”

She said staff brought in clean drinking water for the kids. While the Tornillo center is not on the list of 15 state-regulated shelters that are over-capacity, Gonzalez worries about long-term sustainability for over-population of all immigration facilities.

“While the conditions are better than I thought, kids should never be in tents,” she stated. “Kids should never be incarcerated. This is really dehumanizing and it is impractical and not sustainable.”

Gonzalez added, “Right now, the facility has space for 400 beds, well 360 beds, the contract is for 400 beds, but there is potential for expansion, up to 4,000 beds.” 

“Is that the future of the United States, to have 4,000 people living in tents on the border? To me that seems really scary,” she said.

Sarah Rafique contributed to this report.

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