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EXCLUSIVE: HHS Is Shutting Down the Model Facility for Migrant Kids It Showed Off to Journalists

HHS invited journalists and politicians to visit a new emergency shelter in Carrizo Springs, Texas, which had soccer fields, a gazebo, and well-equipped classrooms. Less than a month later, it's shutting down.

by Emily Green
Jul 23 2019, 2:15pm

When the Department of Health and Human Services wanted to show how well it was treating unaccompanied minors in its custody, it invited journalists and politicians to visit a new emergency shelter in Carrizo Springs, Texas, which had soccer fields, a gazebo, and well-equipped classrooms.

Yet less than a month after it opened, that facility is shutting down, VICE News has learned.

The federal government opened the emergency shelter on June 30 to provide more beds so it could move kids out of squalid Border Patrol facilities where they were being held for weeks because there was not enough space in permanent shelters.

But since then, the number of unaccompanied migrant children crossing the border has fallen sharply, from 11,489 in May to 7,378 in June.

“It was too much too late,” said Kevin Dinnin, head of the San Antonio-based nonprofit BCFS Health and Human Services, which is operating the shelter at Carrizo Springs, a remote town in South Texas. “By this weekend, we should have discharged all the children.”

The shelter’s closure — or at least the prospect that it will sit empty — raises questions about the Trump administration’s haphazard response to the crisis at the border, as it failed to prepare for the yearlong surge in unaccompanied migrant children that peaked in May, kept them in chaotic and filthy Border Patrol facilities, appeared flat-footed when news reports detailed the horrific conditions, and then rushed to open an emergency shelter that now appears unnecessary.

READ: We toured Carrizo Springs, the newest shelter for migrant kids: "We do things differently here."

Even the opening of the shelter was beset with problems, as the Department of Health and Human Services signed a five-year, $8.8 million lease for the complex without first inspecting it, Dinnin said. It was only after signing the lease that officials realized the complex, which formerly housed workers in nearby oil fields, had mold and non-functioning air-conditioners.

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A gravel road off the highway leads to the Carrizo Springs shelter. (Photo: Gaby Del Valle/VICE News)

The Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is in charge of caring for unaccompanied migrant children, acknowledged that “there were issues regarding mold and air-conditioning.” It said “those issues were resolved” before the arrival of children to the shelter.

BCFS and the Health and Human Services department went to great lengths to show off Carrizo Springs after it opened. Reporters, including one from VICE News, were given highly controlled tours of the facility and shown the areas where children sleep, play, and attend classes. The subtext was clear: Carrizo Springs may be an influx shelter, but the operations were top-notch.

ORR said there were 100 children at the shelter as of Monday, down from 232 children two weeks ago. The agency didn’t confirm whether all the children would be gone by this weekend or what would happen to the facilities afterwards.

READ: Migrant father who drowned with daughter was extorted at the border hours before crossing

Dinnin said most of the children who passed through the shelter were released to family members in the U.S. within a couple of weeks, which is a big deal because ORR was previously taking months to release children because of bureaucratic delays and onerous fingerprint requirements on sponsors. He said the remaining children would be released, while those without verified sponsors would be sent to permanent shelters.

It’s unclear exactly how many millions of dollars the government sunk into the shelter at Carrizo Springs. BCFS was awarded a contract for up to $308 million through January 2020 to house and take care of up to 1,344 children.

Emergency shelters are for more expensive to operate than smaller permanent shelters, because they have to have their own generators, fire department, and emergency medical team. Costs at Carrizo Springs run around $750-800 per child per day, Dinnin said, and his nonprofit employs roughly 700 staff members at the shelter, including teachers, case workers, and recreational staff.

Dinnin said he has given ORR two options: leave the shelter intact in case there's another surge in unaccompanied migrant children, or take out all the equipment his team has placed there, including a large air-conditioned tent where new arrivals were given preliminary health screenings, as well as school classrooms and a dining hall.

Response to the shelter’s closure was mixed.

“There should never be an influx facility,” said Hope Frye, executive director of Project Lifeline, which advocates for detained immigrant children. “If ORR properly managed the release of children expeditiously as they are required to do under law, then they would always have sufficient bed space to accommodate every child arriving no matter the number."

Dinnin said the government was caught in a tough position.

“In responding to an emergency shelter, you are darned if you do, darned if you don’t. You either do too much or too little,” he said. “If the influx had continued at the rate it was going, they would need this now. They got caught behind the curve.”

Gaby Del Valle contributed reporting.

Cover: In this July 9, 2019 photo, immigrants line up in the dinning hall at the U.S. government's newest holding center for migrant children in Carrizo Springs, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Correction: A previous headline for this story misidentified the federal agency responsible for the shelter in Carrizo Springs, Texas.