(AP) — The federal government is opening a giant new jail to hold immigrant children in Texas and considering detaining hundreds more children on three military bases around the country, adding a total of 3,000 new beds to the system.
The jail in Carrizo Springs, Texas, will hold up to 1,600 teens in a complex that once housed oilfield workers on government-leased land near the border, said Mark Weber, a spokesman for Office of Refugee Resettlement.
The agency is also weighing using Army and Air Force bases in Georgia, Montana and Oklahoma to house an additional 1,400 children in coming weeks. Most of the children will have arrived in the United States without their families and will held in government custody while authorities determine if they can be released to relatives or family friends.
All the new jail will be considered temporary “emergency shelters” and thus not be subject to state child welfare licensing requirements, Weber said. In January, the government shut down a large detention camp in the Texas desert that was unlicensed and another unlicensed jail remains in operation in the Miami suburbs.
“It is our legal requirement to take care of these children so that they are not in Border Patrol facilities,” Weber said. “They will have the services that ORR always provides, which is food, shelter and water.”
Under fire for the death of two children who went through the agency’s network of shelters and facing lawsuits over the treatment of teens in its care, the agency says it must set up new facilities or risk running out of beds.
The announcement of the program’s expansion follows the government’s decision to scale back or cut paying for recreation, English-language courses and legal services for the more than 13,200 migrant toddlers, school-age children and teens in its jails.
The Health and Human Services department, which oversees the refugee office, notified jails around the country last week that it was not going to reimburse them for teachers’ pay, legal services or recreational equipment, saying budget cuts were needed as record numbers of unaccompanied children arrive at the border, largely from Central America. In May, border agents arrested 11,507 children traveling alone.
Attorneys said the move violates a legal settlement known as the Flores agreement, that requires the government to provide education and recreational activities to immigrant children in its care.
Advocates have slammed the move as punitive, saying such services are typically available to adult prisoners.
“ORR’s canceling of these services will inflict further harm on children, many of whom continue to languish for months without being placed safely and expeditiously into a sponsor’s care. That is not only unacceptable, it could be in violation of the law,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee with oversight on the agency’s budget.