Fort Worth

Countless migrant children could soon be headed to Fort Worth. Here’s why

Hear the words of detained migrant children

Children read the words of their peers held in U.S. Border Patrol facilities.
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Children read the words of their peers held in U.S. Border Patrol facilities.

Fort Worth for years has been a temporary home to countless unaccompanied migrant children.

And it could soon house even more.

The city is among nearly half a dozen sites being considered for a permanent state-licensed shelter for the Unaccompanied Children’s Program, officials with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services told the Star-Telegram.

These permanent shelters are “being pursued to reduce the potential need for temporary influx shelters in the future,” according to a statement from the Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families. They must be able to hold as many as 500 children in buildings with more than 100,000 square feet.

That would eliminate the need for makeshift facilities such as the Tornillo Tent city near El Paso, which housed thousands of children before it closed earlier this year.

The immigrant families at the center of the nation’s debate are largely Central Americans who maintain they are escaping threats at home and hoping to get asylum in the United States. The Trump administration’s policy has resulted in children being separated from their families at the border.

In Fort Worth protesters show up every Friday morning — some carrying signs stating “Keep Families Together” — near U.S. Rep. Kay Granger’s Fort Worth office. They vow to keep protesting until children are no longer separated from their parents.

Health and Human Services has been reviewing potential sites for the shelter since earlier this year. Officials are seeking a vacant site with around two acres of outdoor space that’s available for a two-decade lease. Officials declined to name properties that have been reviewed.

Other areas under consideration include San Antonio, Houston, Phoenix and Atlanta.

Fort Worth shelter

Catholic Charities Fort Worth has operated the Assessment Center of Tarrant County for years. It once offered beds to children who had been removed from their homes by Child Protective Services, but now it mostly serves unaccompanied minor children.

The Catholic Charities of Dallas took over the contract to run the shelter July 1 and everything is running as it was when the Fort Worth Catholic Charities ran it, said Dave Woodyard, chief executive officer of Catholic Charities of Dallas.

“It made sense for us to take it on and for (Catholic Charities Fort Worth) to focus on their huge mission,” Woodyard said. “We are doing it in their stead.”

The 24-bed shelter serves as an intermediate stop for children separated from their families at the border.

In the past, officials have said the majority of the boys and girls, mostly between 5 and 12, have been from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Many have stayed for two to four weeks.

Woodyard declined to say how many children are at the shelter, where they are from or how long they will be staying there.

“We are always looking out for the safety of the children,” Woodyard said.

But he did note that little has changed since management of the facility shifted this summer.

Traditionally, children are checked at the facility by a physician and given any needed immunizations. They are given clothes and food and attend lessons with a teacher from the Fort Worth school district, officials have said.

Most of all, “we are still helping them in the reunification process to get connected with their families.”

“This is about getting them into a safe environment.”

Immigration debate

Families at the center of the nation’s immigration debate returned to the forefront when the image of a migrant father and daughter who drowned trying to make it to the United States drew nationwide attention.

The photo of Oscar Alberto Martinez and his nearly 2-year-old daughter was taken when the two were found face down in the Rio Grande. The two were leaving El Salvador.

Many immigrant families seeking asylum in the United States are largely Central Americans who say they are trying to escape threats and danger at home.

Their journeys are dangerous treks that start in El Salvador, Honduras or Guatemala. Families travel through Mexico and to the Texas border, where they expect to start an asylum process after turning themselves into immigration authorities.

For more than a year, North Texas immigrant allies have organized to speak out against policies and practices that separate parents and children at the border.

Luis Castillo, president of Arlington LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens), said he plans to monitor any plans to bring a holding facility to North Texas.

“Separating families is amoral,” Castillo said. “It’s cruel.”

Castillo said lawmakers should focus on comprehensive, humanitarian immigration reform. Instead, policies floated by President Donald’s Trump administration focus on shutting down legal paths to immigration by restricting the asylum process.

“We have a race problem,” Castillo said. “At the very minimum, Trump has put that in the forefront.”

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Anna M. Tinsley grew up in a journalism family and has been a reporter for the Star-Telegram since 2001. She has covered the Texas Legislature and politics for more than two decades and has won multiple awards for political reporting, most recently a third place from APME for deadline writing. She is a Baylor University graduate.
Diane Smith, a graduate from the University of Texas at Austin, has been a reporter for the Star-Telegram since 1997. Smith, who has covered municipal government, immigration and education, has won multiple awards for reporting, most recently as part of a Star-Telegram team recognized by the Headliners Foundation of Texas for coverage of child abuse and Fort Worth’s Las Vegas Trail area.