As Feds Open Shelters for Migrant Children, Texas Fortifies Its Borders

by | December 16, 2015

By Molly Hennessy-Fiske

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday that he is extending the deployment of National Guard troops at the southern border to combat the dramatic increase in young migrants caught crossing into the U.S.

The governor also ordered the Texas Department of Public Safety to increase the number of boats and tactical officers on the Rio Grande River and stepped up aerial observation missions. He said that 100 troopers have been deployed and that 250 more troopers will be sent "as fast as their training can be completed."

The governor's offensive came as federal officials were showing off new facilities designed to aid the young people who are being intercepted as they cross the border. Many are fleeing the violence of Central America.

Abbott said he warned Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson about the "significant increase" in young border crossers in September and asked for his help to keep the situation "from escalating into an uncontrollable crisis."

But Abbott said that help never arrived.

"Despite the warning _ followed by a phone discussion about the matter _ my request for more Border Patrol agents and strategic resources to secure the border were ignored," Abbott said in a statement.

National Guard troops were deployed to the border in July 2014 by then-Gov. Rick Perry amid a surge of migrant children and families from Central America. After ebbing, the number of children arriving at the border jumped again this fall.

Abbott said that during the last two months, the number of unaccompanied children caught crossing the border was two to three times higher than last year at this time. Most are from Central America, fleeing the violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

The number of children caught along a remote stretch of the west Texas border near Big Bend National Park has increased almost tenfold this fall, he said. But the epicenter of children crossing this fall remained the Rio Grande Valley, where the number of migrants intercepted nearly doubled to 6,465, he said.

When the children are caught by Border Patrol, by law they must be turned over within 72 hours to the Department of Health and Human Services, which runs the shelters. Children are held at the shelters until they can be placed with parents, relatives or other sponsors while their immigration cases are pending.

The secretary of Health and Human Services has asked the Pentagon to line up 5,000 shelter beds for the young people. During last year's surge, the military opened emergency shelters to house the migrants at bases in Oxnard, Calif., San Antonio and Fort Sill, Okla.

Last week, federal officials announced that they would be opening emergency shelters for 1,400 unaccompanied children _ 400 in California and 1,000 in Texas. That's in addition to the military request and 8,400 shelter beds already created nationwide, many along the border.

In north Texas, two of the new shelters opened last week to house 800 children at a ranch and an Assembly of God church camp.

Federal officials were hosting a tour Tuesday afternoon of the Lakeview Camp and Retreat Center in Waxahachie, about 35 miles south of Dallas, an area known for sprawling fields of Texas bluebonnets. The camp's executive director, Jaroy Carpenter, posted a letter on its website saying he had readied a team of 200 to work with the children, ages 12 to 18.

"While here, these students will experience recreation, education, church services and other typical camp programming," Carpenter said.

Some local officials and residents have expressed concern about security at the shelter, as they have in other parts of Texas where shelters have opened. In Dallas, a backlash led officials to scrap plans for a shelter.

The shelters are not secure facilities, and dozens walked away from them last year.

Ellis County Commissioner Paul Perry questioned why he was given only 48 hours' notice before the Waxahachie shelter opened.

"I still would have opposed it, but they wouldn't have received the same level of emotional response," He said.

Perry said local opposition reached a "fever pitch" this week, with rumors flying that "could have been nipped in the bud had they given us more lead time."

Perry said that he is not opposed to aiding Central America and that his daughter is preparing for a 10-month mission trip there to teach English at an orphanage. What he resents is "this being dropped on our heads in a suburban, somewhat rural county with no notice."

Perry toured the shelter Monday, where he saw mostly adolescent boys in clean, well-lighted facilities with security personnel but no security fence.

"The security is as good as it's going to be for a shelter that's not designed to be secure," said Perry, a former magistrate. "They claim they've screened these folks and I'm sure the average one is not a problem, but we really don't know the backgrounds of these people."

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times