The U.S. government plans to use the downtown Dallas convention center to hold up to 3,000 immigrant teenagers as sharply higher numbers of border crossings have severely strained the current capacity to hold youths, The Associated Press has learned.
The Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center will be used for up to 90 days beginning as early as this week, according to written notification sent to members of the Dallas City Council and provided to The Associated Press. Federal agencies will use the facility to house boys ages 15 to 17, according to the memo, which describes the soon-to-open site as a “decompression center.”
U.S. Health and Human Services is rushing to open facilities across the country to house immigrant children who are otherwise being held by the U.S. Border Patrol, which is generally supposed to detain children for no more than three days. The Border Patrol is holding children longer because there is next to no space in the HHS system, similar to the last major increase in migration two years ago.
A tent facility operated by the Border Patrol in Donna, some 170 miles (274 kilometers) south of Midland, is holding more than 1,000 children and teenagers, some as young as 4. Lawyers who inspect immigrant detention facilities under a court settlement say they interviewed children who reported being held in packed conditions in the tent, with some sleeping on the floor and others not able to shower for five days.
HHS did not respond to requests for comment. A spokeswoman for the city of Dallas said the city was preparing a comment on the agreement.
HHS also said it will house immigrant youths in Midland. Teenagers began arriving Sunday at a converted camp for oilfield workers where volunteers from the American Red Cross will care for them.
Neither HHS nor the Red Cross would detail how the volunteers have been trained or whether they have undergone FBI fingerprint checks. The Red Cross said in a statement that it was working with HHS to “orient our volunteers.”
“HHS will utilize all available options to care for the children referred to us safely,” the agency said in a statement. BuzzFeed News first reported the opening of the Midland facility.
The surge at the U.S.-Mexico border has presented a major test for President Joe Biden’s administration, which promised to break from the more restrictive measures against migrants enacted by former President Donald Trump. Biden has left in place some Trump policies, notably the expulsions of immigrant adults and families under a public-health declaration citing the coronavirus pandemic.
Biden declined to reinstate public-health expulsions of children, and his administration has also been unable to expel many families in South Texas due to policy changes in Mexico’s Tamaulipas state, across from the Texas Rio Grande Valley.
Border agents are apprehending more than 400 children a day on average, far more than the number of children that HHS is processing and releasing to sponsors. The Biden administration has announced several policy changes to try to expedite releases, but experts and immigration lawyers say the government could do more to speed up the process, particularly of releasing children to their parents in the U.S.