About 450 unaccompanied migrant girls between the ages of 13 and 17 were abruptly removed from their American home in Houston on Saturday, less than three weeks after it opened.
Reports say authorities are mostly closed for the closure, but an immigrant advocate says it was due to some sort of incident there on Friday night.
Ambulances and vehicles were spotted Friday night in front of a facility near Bush Intercontinental Airport, the lawyer told the Associated Press, citing information he received from an employee of the group he leads.
Then on Saturday morning buses arrived to transport the girls, other reports said.
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“There seems to have been a lot of confusion about what’s going on,” Cesar Espinosa, director of the FIEL Houston advisory group, told the AP, citing information from the employee on Friday night. “The people who were there looked as if they were in a sad posture, with their heads bowed and wiping away tears.”
“There seemed to be a lot of confusion about what was going on.”
The Houston Chronicle reported Saturday that the closure followed reports of overcrowding at the facility – and that a senior U.S. Department of Health and Humanitarian Service (HHS) official died there Friday night in an incident unrelated to the girls’ transfer.
The girls at the Houston facility have been there since April 1. The place was called the “Emergency Place for Unaccompanied Children” and was run by the National Association of Christian Churches (NACC), according to the AP.
Espinosa told the AP that he toured the facility and found that the girls were living in crowded conditions despite the coronavirus pandemic.
“There really was no room for social distancing. … They were only allowed to get up from their crib to use the toilet and take a bath,” he said. “Everything that was imported was temporary. The showers were temporary, they were importing temporary toilets, so this space was not equipped to accommodate anyone, much less children.”
“There really was no room for social distancing. … They only had the right to get up from their crib to use the toilet and take a bath.”
But Pastor Jose Ortega, president of NACC, disputed Espinosa’s claims, arguing that the girls had been removed due to disagreements about the performers and that the young men were well cared for.
“The girls were excited. The girls were having fun. The girls were showered, they were present,” the pastor told KHOU-TV in Houston.
The pastor told KPRC-TV in Houston that he did not know about the plans to close until Saturday morning.
“We actually found out when we started seeing these buses arrive this morning,” Ortega said, according to KPRC.
News about the formwork of the facility in Houston was announced on Saturday by HHS, AP reported.
Democrat Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said the Biden administration told him Saturday that the facility was closed because it was no longer needed, KHOU reported.
Allegations from San Antonio
The HHS was uncovered less than two weeks after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott called on the Biden administration to close a facility in San Antonio over allegations that children there had been sexually abused and had not eaten enough. The facility in San Antonio houses more than 1,600 young immigrants, according to the AP.
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“The Biden administration is now chairing child abuse,” Abbott told reporters earlier this month when he briefed Texas government officials on allegations on federally sanctioned websites.
“The Biden administration is now chairing child abuse.”
However, Saturday’s reports do not suggest that there was sexual violence in Houston.
In March, the US government stopped accepting migrant teenagers at a facility in Midland, Texas, due to safety issues there and at other sites, the AP reported.
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In a statement, HHS said the site was intended for the temporary accommodation of the girls.
HHS said about 130 of the girls will be placed with sponsors, such as parents or relatives, and HHS’s Resettlement Office (ORR) will find sponsors for the remaining girls.
Attempts by the AP to contact Houston Police and the National Association of Churches regarding the Houston closure were not immediately successful.
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HHS was quick to find accommodation for migrant children on the US-Mexico border amid a wave of migrants that came with the launch of the Biden administration.
Neither President Biden – nor Vice President Kamala Harris, who was appointed last month to manage the Biden administration’s response to the migrant crisis – have toured the border region since taking office in January.
Harris’ recent trips include catering stops in Oakland, California; a bakery in Chicago and a club for boys and girls in Connecticut.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.