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‘We’re told we can’t talk’: NGO silent amid concerns over conditions in Houston migrant shelter

UPDATED

Near Houston, Texas’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport, a nongovernmental organization is taking in migrants and is now housing nearly 500 migrant girls after being granted a federal contract to do so.

The National Association of Christian Churches (NACC) facility sits close to the airport in an area that is full of industrial warehouses. A passerby would assume the buildings in the area are used for the storage of construction material.

The nonprofit organization is there when disaster strikes and its office of Disaster Services was full of commotion Wednesday when this reporter attempted to speak with an organization representative. The secretary at the front desk, however, said the organization isn’t speaking with the media and didn’t give a definitive answer when asked if NACC is actively recruiting volunteers right now.

A group of what appeared to be about 10 volunteers stood outside of the facility, which had signs saying “NO TRESPASSING NO SOLICITING” and “AUTHORIZED INDIVIDUALS ONLY.” They told me, “We’re told we can’t talk.”

I later asked an individual who walked by my car as I was leaving the area if they knew if the NACC is actively recruiting volunteers at the moment. They didn’t know but said they’re a federal employee with the Department of Health and Human Services and received an email to help.

Shortly after the visit to the facility, The Houston Chronicle reported that nearly a dozen immigration advocates and lawyers are becoming increasingly concerned over the conditions in the NACC migrant shelter. 

Executive director of FIEL, an immigrant-run civil rights group, Cesar Espinosa told the newspaper he was first turned away when he offered to volunteer as a translator at the NACC facility. Later, he was allowed in and expressed concern over the conditions he witnessed.

“From overcrowding to the heat that these children may experience, (these) are just a few questions that linger in my mind after witnessing for myself the conditions in which these children are currently being stored in at a warehouse that once housed dry goods,” Espinosa told The Chronicle.

“They don’t even have a place to eat… The food is brought to their cots,” he added.

Earlier this month, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-TX, visited the NACC migrant facility in Houston and sounded pleased with what she saw inside. “We have a full medical team there, a full food service that the children can enjoy, as well as snacks,” she said.

This reporter requested comment from the Congresswoman regarding The Chronicle’s recent report but didn’t receive a response.

When asked about the paper’s report, NACC didn’t respond to this reporter’s email request for comment. The Texas Department of Public Safety told this reporter on Friday that they aren’t currently investigating NACC.

The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services said they don’t investigate federal facilities and couldn’t locate any reports about the facility.

The Texas Department of State Health and Human Services said they hadn’t received any official complaints and referred us to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which provided the following April 9 statement from an HHS spokesperson:

“The Department on Health and Human Services (HHS) takes its humanitarian mission seriously. While unaccompanied migrant children (UC) are in our care under the law, we strive to provide a safe space as they go through immigration proceedings. HHS has a zero-tolerance policy for all forms of sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and inappropriate sexual behavior at all UC care provider facilities. We will continue investigating any incidents affecting children’s health, well-being and safety and will take the proper measures including initiating employee disciplinary action, termination, and reporting to appropriate investigative entities, such as law enforcement agencies and relevant licensing bodies.”

The silence comes as the Biden administration faces scrutiny for the conditions at a number of migrant facilities, including a Border Patrol facility in Donna, Texas where it is extremely overcrowded, congressional sources who visited the facility told this reporter last week.

House Minority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise, R-LA, led a delegation of 10 Republican lawmakers to the Texas border last week. During their visit, the members visited the Donna facility and reported observing inhumane conditions.

“At the Donna Processing Facility, we encountered thousands of migrants in cramped makeshift shelters in overcrowded rooms that were more than 10 times the capacity limits,” Scalise said during a select subcommittee on the covid crisis hearing Thursday. “We saw children in tears who simply wanted to go back home to be with their families, but instead were in these federally-run holding cells – with at least a 10% COVID positive rate – for over three weeks.”

Further, Scalise slammed Biden for allowing the facilities to not take proper precautions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, such as quarantines, testing, and social distancing requirements. He shared his concerns to Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“President Biden also is not fully enforcing Title 42 of the Public Health Safety Act designed to prevent migrants from spreading COVID in the United States. Since Biden took office, families with children under seven are being dropped off at the McAllen Bus Station and released from custody. No COVID tests, no quarantines, no enforcement. Even more concerning is that the Biden Administration may completely end enforcement of Title 42. If that happens, Border Patrol told us the numbers of illegal crossings the border could mushroom even higher.”

He added, “As we toured the Donna Processing Facility, we saw the holding rooms President Biden set up for young children. Each room is not supposed to have more than 50 people, six per cell, but we saw more than 400 children packed like sardines into cells designed for less than 50. It was heartbreaking to see so many young children packed into these cells, laying on the floor, many crying to return home to family. Social distancing does not exist at these facilities.  

San Antonio’s Freeman Coliseum, which is also housing migrants, has come under fire for recent allegations of child sex abuse and Texas Governor Greg Abbott has called for the facility to be shut down as a result. Earlier this week, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton visited the facility and reiterated his efforts to take legal action against the Biden administration for its immigration policies.

“The reality is there is no way we can be prepared to deal with this magnitude of a problem with this number of children in need. Staff at these facilities are stretched thin and straining to care for these children on an individual basis, which is what they desperately need. This is not good for the state, for our country, or for these children,” Paxton said.

He added, “For the safety of Texas, our nation, and the thousands of kids housed at these facilities, I am using every legal resource available to sue the Biden Administration and end its failed policies. This is not the best way to bring people into our country. Better, safer, and more methodical ways must be enacted.”

The month of March was a record for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which saw over 172,000 migrants attempting to cross the Southern border. Moreover, CBP encountered 18,890 unaccompanied migrant children at the U.S.-Mexico border last month.

“CBP has experienced an increase in encounters and arrests. This is not new. Encounters have continued to increase since April 2020, and our past experiences have helped us be better prepared for the challenges we face this year,” said CBP Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Commissioner Troy Miller.

“We are committed to balancing the need to maintain border security, care for those in our custody, and keep the American people and our workforce safe.”

Follow Jennie Taer on Twitter @JennieSTaer

Jennie Taer

Jennie Taer