unaccompanied minors in a care facility

Monitored by a caretaker, young unaccompanied migrants between the ages of three and nine sit inside a playpen at the Donna Department of Homeland Security holding facility, the main detention center for unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley in Donna, Texas on March 30, 2021. (Photo: Dario Lopez-Mills/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

'Unfathomable Cruelty': Texas Order Would Revoke Licenses of Child Care Facilities Housing Unaccompanied Minors

One critic said that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is "intentionally subjecting these children to being crammed in detention facilities."

In a move that one progressive critic called an act of "unfathomable cruelty," Texas' Republican Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday ordered state regulators to rescind the licenses of child care facilities that provide shelter and nourishment to unaccompanied asylum-seeking minors who were detained after crossing the southern U.S. border.

"We are assessing the Texas directive concerning licensed facilities providing care to unaccompanied children and do not intend to close any facilities as a result of the order."
--HHS Spokesperson

The federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which falls under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), has contracts with roughly 200 facilities in 22 states to care for undocumented migrant children, including 52 state-licensed facilities in Texas.

"Within three months or so," the Dallas Morning News reported Tuesday, "Abbott's move apparently would force them to stop serving unaccompanied minors because the facilities must have state licenses to qualify for the federal contracts."

Sawyer Hackett, executive director of former HUD Secretary Julian Castro's organization, People First Future, accused Abbott of "intentionally subjecting these children to being crammed in detention facilities"--a reference to unlicensed temporary sites with far lower standards of care and overcrowded "border jails," run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which have been deemed inappropriate for minors.

According to the Dallas Morning News, the effects of Abbott's order are "unclear." The newspaper continued:

Nationwide, there are now about 17,000 unaccompanied children, according to data provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. As of May 19, 4,223 of those were being housed in state-licensed facilities or child placing agencies in Texas, according to the state Health and Human Services Commission.

Though it's unclear how many are kept in unlicensed emergency sites--such as the one that just closed in Dallas or the site at Fort Bliss Army base in El Paso that can hold up to 10,000 unaccompanied migrant children and teens--Abbott's move potentially could force relocation of up to one-fourth of the children nationwide.

As for where they will go, the newspaper added that "denying the Biden administration use of the state-licensed shelters could force more of the children to be held at U.S. Customs and Border Protection stations--facilities deemed unsuitable for children."

Asked whether the federal agency would block Abbott's order, a spokesperson said Wednesday that "HHS's top priority is the health and safety of the children in our care. We are assessing the Texas directive concerning licensed facilities providing care to unaccompanied children and do not intend to close any facilities as a result of the order."

In his executive order, Abbott asserted that the arrival of unaccompanied asylum-seeking minors, for which he erroneously blamed the Biden administration, could adversely affect the state's foster care system. "The unabated influx of individuals resulting from federal government policies threatens to negatively impact state-licensed residential facilities, including those that serve Texas children in foster care," he said.

The Dallas Morning News reported that the governor's order also "accuses the federal government of 'commandeering' state resources to cover for its own flubs." That allegation came just four months after the federal government provided assistance to Abbott--whose market-friendly policies, progressive critics argued, exacerbated the consequences of deadly Winter Storm Uri, contrary to right-wing lies that renewable energy was to blame for widespread power outages in the Lone Star State.

"There are several counties in Texas, more than a dozen counties in Texas, that requested a gubernatorial disaster declaration for the border," Abbott told the newspaper on Tuesday. "I declared their disaster declaration."

Citing his disaster powers, the GOP governor directed "state Residential Child Care Regulation officials to suspend two specific state statutes 'and all other relevant laws,'" the Dallas Morning News reported. As the newspaper noted:

The officials, who work for the state Health and Human Services Commission, should then deny any pending applications for new licenses for facilities sheltering "unlawful immigrants" under a federal contract, Abbott said. Existing licensees that fit that description should be given notice and then 90 days "to wind down," the order says.

It also directs the Texas Department of Public Safety to enforce all state and federal laws on trespassing, smuggling, and human trafficking; tells a jail-standards commission to waive rules to give border counties "flexibility needed to establish adequate alternative detention facilities;" and calls for a state-local effort to protect landowners.

Abbott's move was condemned by human rights advocates.

Mark Greenberg, a former child welfare official in the Obama administration and now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, told the Dallas Morning News that Abbott's order represented a "major setback" that "would greatly reduce the availability of licensed care for unaccompanied children at a time when more licensed care is needed, not less."

In addition, he said, "It would greatly increase the burdens on the Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for transporting children to shelters."

Leecia Welch, attorney at the National Center for Youth Law, estimated that Abbott's order would displace roughly 4,000 children and "add even more chaos to an already chaotic situation. The order could force providers with substantial expertise to leave the state and put many people out of their jobs."

"To me, it seems like political theater that is a lose-lose for Texans and for kids," she told the newspaper.

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