The number of children in Texas shelters increased slightly last month, even as the number of migrants arriving at the border has surged.
Federal officials say more than 144,000 migrants were apprehended or denied entry in May, a 13-year high — and more than half of those were families with children. About 8% were unaccompanied minors, who are sometimes sent to these shelters temporarily if officials cannot find U.S.-based sponsors to take them in.
In June, The Trump administration canceled English classes, recreational programs — including soccer — and legal aid for unaccompanied minors staying in federal migrant shelters nationwide, saying they faced budget pressures.
Dylan Corbett, the director of the Hope Border Institute, a faith-based community organization in the El Paso, Las Cruces and Ciudad Juárez said the move was another example of the Trump administration’s attempt at “deterrence through cruelty.”
“[It’s] a demonstration of their willingness to use children as pawns in a politically motivated plan to inflict as much pain as possible,” he said.
The number of children in Texas shelters has climbed slowly since a large decline in January, when a temporary shelter in Tornillo, near El Paso, closed. The hastily built tent city was designed for 360 children when it opened in June, but by December it held 2,700 children. The Trump administration announced in late December it would relax screening policies that immigrant-rights groups have blasted for slowing placement of migrant kids with relatives and other sponsors.
On Dec. 19, state data showed 8,549 children in shelters for unaccompanied youth across the state. That number dropped to 5,659 as of Feb. 21 — after Tornillo closed. The most recent data shows 5,819 children in the 35 remaining shelters as of May 16.
As of May, more than 5,800 unaccompanied migrant children lived in 35 shelters across Texas.
Shelters are meant to serve as temporary homes for children after they arrive in the U.S., typically without adults. Despite the recent decrease, the number of children held in shelters across the country has increased dramatically since last summer. It’s unclear how much of the surge can be attributed to a greater number of unaccompanied children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border and how much is the result of federal policies that have slowed the rate at which children are paired with sponsors.
According to the federal government, some of the children have been released sooner than anticipated because, in late December, the administration ended a portion of its strict screening policies that had slowed the placement of migrant kids with relatives.
On Dec. 19, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said the Office of Refugee Resettlement would still fingerprint sponsors and cross-check their information with FBI national criminal history, state repository records and U.S. Department of Homeland Security arrest records. But it said it would stop doing such extensive background checks on other members of the household.
Throughout 2018, detention shelters asked regulators for permission to add more beds as the number of children in their care ballooned. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission decides whether shelters get a capacity variance, which allows them to house more children.
As of May 16, Texas’ 35 state-licensed shelters had permission to accommodate up to 6,423 children, according to the health commission. With 5,819 kids living in them, that means they’re at 90% capacity.
Those shelters, licensed as child care providers, have a long history of regulatory inspections that have uncovered serious health and safety deficiencies.
A Texas Tribune review of state records found that, over the last three years, inspectors have discovered 468 health and safety violations at the facilities, which can each house anywhere from 20 to more than 1,400 children at a time.
The facilities’ inspection reports, though often light on details, paint a picture of the abuses that young children may face in a foreign environment where many have language barriers and a history of trauma from the journey to the U.S.
Counts of children on this page are current as of February 2019, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. Data from the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement is from January 2019.