Texas Politics

Nearly 40 groups urge Texas lawmakers to ensure humane treatment of migrant families

Nearly 40 organizations sent a letter to federal and state lawmakers Thursday, urging them to take steps to ensure that migrant children and families being held in detention centers in Texas are treated humanely.

“It is critical that our federal and state leaders work expeditiously to ensure that all migrant children and families who are crossing our border for their safety and survival are treated with human dignity and care,” the letter said.

The humanitarian organizations, which ranged from interfaith coalitions to North Texas education groups and even statewide medical associations, expressed “deep concern” for the conditions migrant children and their parents are being held in.

“During any brief stays in border or detention facilities, children should have access to sufficient food, clean water, beds, clean clothes, soap, and other necessities, in addition to recreation, health care and educational services,” the letter said.

Lawyers who recently visited a detention center in Clint recounted to the New York Times and El Paso Times seeing children as young as 5 months old being held in cramped cells amid outbreaks of scabies, shingles and chickenpox.

And the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General has documented the overcrowding and prolonged detention at border stations, and expressed its concern for the health and safety of DHS agents and detained migrants.

“We are very concerned that the inhumane treatment of migrant children, stays in detention facilities, and separation from their families or other nurturing caregivers may all have lasting, harmful effects on the health and development of these children,” Sophie Phillips, CEO of TexProtects, which aims to reduce child abuse, said in a news release. “We should be protecting these children, not subjecting them to further traumatic events that can have dire, lifelong consequences.”

As of June 20, 5,705 migrant children were being held in Texas shelters, according to the Texas Tribune.

The letter, sent to Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Sen. John Cornyn, Sen. Ted Cruz, and the state’s congressional members and state legislators, comes nearly a week after state lawmakers held a hearing looking at steps the state could take to combat the influx of migrants coming to the U.S. to seek asylum.

Lawmakers heard testimony from agency officials, immigration attorneys and local officials for nearly six hours last week, but ended the hearing without moving forward on any proposals. Suggestions ranged from suing the federal government to allocating state funds to support local humanitarian efforts on the ground.

The state regulates 41 state-licensed providers that contract with the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement and oversee the care of minors, David Kostroun, the deputy executive commissioner for regulatory services with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission said at the hearing.

And while the Texas Department of Family Protective Services has the authority to investigate allegations of child abuse and neglect in state-licensed facilities, it does not have the authority to investigate federally operated detention centers.

The letter notes that several children have died in federal facilities, and at last week’s hearing the Texas Department of Family Protective Services said it is currently investigating the death of 16-year-old Juan de León Gutiérrez who died in April after officials at a Texas detention center noticed he was sick.

In June, 104,344 people were apprehended or deemed inadmissible along the border, a decline of 28% from 144,278 people in May, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. But officials have said that the crisis has not abated.

Through a Freedom of Information Act request for federal data, immigrant advocacy groups found that as many as five migrant children continue to be separated at the border daily.

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Tessa Weinberg is a state government for the Star-Telegram. Based in Austin, she covers all things policy and politics with a focus on Tarrant County. She previously covered the Missouri legislature where her reporting prompted an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. A California native and graduate of the University of Missouri, she’s made her way across the U.S. and landed in Texas in May 2019.