Out of space: More emergency sites opening to handle influx of migrant children

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Friday, March 19, 2021
More sites opening to handle influx of migrant children
The government brought about 200 teenagers to an emergency site in Dallas, which could expand to up to 3,000 minors.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- With thousands of unaccompanied minors crossing into Texas, officials are scrambling with places to house them safely amid a pandemic and rising numbers.

New sites across Texas are being eyed, including at least two in Houston, as FEMA prepares to come to Texas to help with the influx. The sites would be used temporarily as the government attempts to find ways to safely house the increasing number of people crossing.

The government on Wednesday brought about 200 teenagers to another emergency site at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in downtown Dallas, which could expand to up to 3,000 minors.

While space is a concern, so is the ongoing pandemic. More than 10% of those housed in a converted oil field camp in west Texas have tested positive for COVID-19, according to reporting by the Associated Press.

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U.S. Health and Human Services notified local officials in Midland on Wednesday that it had no plans to bring more teenagers to the site, according to an email seen by the AP. HHS spokesman Mark Weber said taking more teenagers to Midland was on "pause for now." There were still 485 youths there as of Wednesday, 53 of whom had tested positive for COVID-19.

President Joe Biden's administration has been sharply criticized for its response to a surge in crossings of unaccompanied immigrant children. As roughly as 4,500 children wait in Border Patrol facilities unequipped for long-term detention, with some sleeping on floors, HHS has rushed to open holding sites across the country and tried to expedite its processes for releasing children in custody. About 9,500 minors are in HHS custody.

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In addition, the U.S. has seen a sharp increase in Central American families arriving at the border who are fleeing violence, poverty and the effects of a destructive hurricane. Biden has kept intact an emergency measure enacted by the Trump administration during the pandemic that allows the government to quickly expel them to Mexico, though families with young children are generally allowed to enter through South Texas.

The Biden administration is not expelling immigrant children unaccompanied by a parent or legal guardian. Several hundred a day are crossing the border, going first to often packed Border Patrol stations while they await placement in the HHS system.

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HHS has turned to the American Red Cross to care for teenagers in both Midland and Dallas, a departure from the standard practice of having paid, trained staff watch over youths. Red Cross volunteers sit outside portable trailers in Midland to monitor the teenagers staying inside. Staff from HHS and the U.S. Public Health Service are also at both sites.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.