About 450 unaccompanied migrant girls, ages 13 to 17, were abruptly moved out of a US housing facility in Houston on Saturday – less than three weeks after it opened.
Authorities have mostly gagged on the shutdown, reports say, but an immigrant advocate claims it was due to some incident there Friday night.
Ambulances and law enforcement vehicles were spotted outside the facility Friday night, which is located near Bush Intercontinental Airport, the attorney told The Associated Press, citing information he said he had received from an employee of the group he heads.
Buses arrived to transport the girls on Saturday morning, other reports said.
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“There seemed to be a lot of confusion about what was going on,” Cesar Espinosa, director of FIEL Houston advisory group, told the AP, relaying the employee’s information about Friday night. “The people who were there looked like they were in a sad posture, with their heads down a little and it seemed like they were wiping away the tears.”
“There seemed to be a lot of confusion about what was going on.”
The Houston Chronicle reported Saturday that the shutdown followed reports of crowding out at the facility – and that an adult staff member of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had died there Friday night in an incident unrelated to the transfer of the girls.
The girls at the Houston facility had been there since April 1. The location was called an Emergency Intake Site for Unaccompanied Children and was managed by the National Association of Christian Churches (NACC), according to the AP.
Espinosa told the AP that he visited the facility and found that the girls were living in crowded conditions despite the coronavirus pandemic.
“There was really no room for social distance … They were only allowed to get up from their bed to use the toilet as well as to take a shower,” he said. “Everything brought in was temporary. The showers were temporary, they brought temporary toilets, so this space was not equipped to accommodate anyone, let alone children.”
“There was really no room for social distance … They were only allowed to get out of their beds to go to the toilet as well as to take a shower.”
But Pastor Jose Ortega, president of the NACC, disputed Espinosa’s claims, claiming that the girls were removed due to disagreements over contractors and that the young people were well cared for.
“The girls were excited. The girls had fun. The girls were showered and groomed,” the pastor told Houston’s KHOU-TV.
The pastor told Houston’s KPRC-TV that he was not aware of the closure plans until Saturday morning.
“We found out when we started seeing these buses arrive this morning,” Ortega said, according to KPRC.
News of the shuttering of the Houston facility was announced Saturday by HHS, the AP reported.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, a Democrat, said the Biden administration told him on Saturday that the facility was closing because it was no longer needed, KHOU reported.
Allegations from San Antonio
The HHS’s disclosure came less than two weeks after Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott called on Biden’s government to close a facility in San Antonio over allegations that children there were being sexually assaulted and not eating enough. According to the AP, the San Antonio facility is home to more than 1,600 immigrant youth.
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“The Biden administration is now leading child abuse,” Abbott told reporters earlier this month when he informed state officials in Texas of the allegations at federally sanctioned sites.
“The Biden government is now leading the abuse of children.”
However, there was no suggestion in the Saturday reports that sexual abuse had taken place in Houston.
In March, the US government stopped accepting migrant teenagers at a facility in Midland, Texas, over questions about security there and in other locations, the AP reported.
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In a statement, HHS said the site was intended as temporary accommodation for the girls.
HHS said about 130 of the girls would be placed with sponsors, such as parents or relatives, and HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) would find sponsors for the rest of the girls.
Attempts by the AP to reach the Houston Police Department and the National Association of Churches regarding the Houston shutdown were not immediately successful.
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HHS has rushed to find shelter for migrant children in the US-Mexico border region amid the migrant surge that accompanied the start of the Biden administration.
Neither President Biden – nor Vice President Kamala Harris, appointed last month to manage the Biden administration’s response to the migrant crisis – has toured the border region since taking office in January.
Harris’ recent trips include stops at a catering company in Oakland, California; a bakery in Chicago and a Boys & Girls Club in Connecticut.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.