The number of children crossing the border without their immediate families has surged recently. This is the result of multiple factors — including, of course, the violence, persecution and climate disasters that have ravaged the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Another significant factor is a covid-era policy established by the Trump administration — and largely left unchanged by President Biden — to expel single adults and families crossing into the United States without allowing them to apply for asylum, in violation of our domestic and international legal obligations.
With some recent exceptions, only unaccompanied children have reliably been allowed in.
The influx has placed tremendous stress on the system set up to receive and care for unaccompanied children while more permanent placements are found with U.S.-based family or other sponsors. To make matters worse, covid-related safety precautions have forced existing state-licensed shelters and foster-care programs to reduce their capacity.
Facing a shortage of beds at licensed facilities, the Biden administration has quickly opened unlicensed, triage-like centers at military bases, convention centers, sports arenas and other sites. These emergency intake sites are better than holding cells, perhaps, but they lack the intensive services needed by kids recovering from trauma. Worse, many such sites have been plagued with allegations of misconduct, inadequate training and safety failures.
The entire project has (deservedly) been attacked by Republicans — including Texas’s Abbott, who recently referred to a San Antonio concert venue temporarily housing kids as “a health and safety nightmare.”
So, how did Abbott act on such unacceptable conditions? He decided to force more vulnerable kids into them.
Last week, Abbott ordered Texas regulators to “discontinue state licensure of any child care facility” that has a federal contract to temporarily house unaccompanied minors in Texas, giving these facilities 90 days to “wind down” their existing contracts. This is, ostensibly, because he believes the influx of migrant kids threatens to “negatively impact” facilities that serve Texas children, even though domestic kids are generally placed at separate locations and served by different programs.
Abbott wants to use migrant kids as a political football anyway, as governors in several other states previously did when slamming the door on unaccompanied children. The decision matters more in Texas, though, since its state-licensed facilities house about a quarter of all unaccompanied children in federal custody.
Some 4,200 children are likely to be displaced by Abbott’s de-licensure directive — and many may end up having longer stays in those “health and safety nightmare” intake sites that Abbott himself warned about.
So, Abbott is deliberately making it harder for the federal government to fulfill its legal obligations to vulnerable children. Federal contracts currently require these types of higher-quality facilities to be licensed by the state, and it’s not clear how the federal government will adapt. In a statement, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which awards these contracts, said it is “assessing the Texas directive concerning licensed facilities providing care to unaccompanied children” and does “not intend to close any facilities as a result of the order.”
If the feds somehow allowed shelters and foster-care programs that lose state licensure to continue taking in children, Abbott’s order would put contractors themselves in a difficult position. Organizations that lose their license because they decide to continue working with migrant kids would forfeit the ability to care for Texas-born kids; that means organizations that run multiple programs, such as Catholic Charities of Dallas, would have to decide which population they want to serve.
Many of these contractors are ministries that work with displaced migrant children as an expression of their faith, heeding scripture’s instructions to welcome the stranger and protect immigrants and orphans. Understandably then, such faith-based institutions have expressed frustration at the governor’s implicit decision to restrict their ability to act on their religious beliefs, particularly given his frequent claims to being a champion for religious liberty.
“As a follower of Jesus," said Marv Knox, a coordinator at Fellowship Southwest, "I take seriously his admonition that we demonstrate how much we love God by how we treat ‘the least of these.’”