Texas

Abilene (a Trump hotbed) braces for its 'tent city' for immigrant children

Abilene is conservative but residents say they'll help "tent city" immigrants

Abilene residents have a long history of helping immigrants with residency. But the Trump administration's proposed "tent city" at nearby Dyess Air Force Base could stretch resources.
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Abilene residents have a long history of helping immigrants with residency. But the Trump administration's proposed "tent city" at nearby Dyess Air Force Base could stretch resources.

Nelly Diaz is a seasoned veteran when it comes to immigration issues.

But even she can hardly fathom what it might be like if the Trump administration follows through with plans to open a "tent city" at nearby Dyess Air Force Base, where hundreds of immigrant children separated from their parents at the Mexico border could soon be housed.

"We don't have enough foster parents and case workers to help the people who are already here," Diaz, an immigration supervisor for the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Angelo, said Friday as she worked from a tiny immigration office behind Holy Family Catholic Church.

"I have been thinking about this over and over," she said, "and I just don't see how it can work."

Abilene is a complicated place, politically and culturally. Nearly 80 percent of voters in the Abilene media market favored Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, the highest percentage in the nation, according to the Adweek Network.

And yet it's also a community where numerous churches and nonprofit groups are quick to reach out to immigrants, including political refugees as well as those simply seeking to move to the United States for a better life.

This week, Dyess Air Force Base on the Abilene outskirts was identified by the federal government as one of three possible sites for tent cities to be erected to house children who have been separated from their parents at the border with Mexico, as the Trump administration begins to enforce its "zero tolerance" policy, according to a McClatchy exclusive report.

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Nelly Diaz, immigration supervisor for the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Angelo, talks with a resident at a church in Abilene. Gordon Dickson

On Friday, a U.S. Health and Human Services spokesman confirmed that a fourth site at the Tornillo port of entry near El Paso would actually be the first tent city to open. The official said the tents would be air-conditioned and would initially hold about 360 children.

Specific plans about whether Dyess AFB will be used to house immigrant children are still being kept under wraps. Other possible locations for tent cities include Fort Bliss near El Paso and Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo.

Workers such as Diaz say they'll stand ready to help the new arrivals, if needed.

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The immigration office near an Abilene Catholic church Gordon Dickson

But handling the caseloads won't be easy. Just about every day when Diaz arrives at work at either her Abilene or San Angelo office, a line of seven or eight immigrants is waiting at her door seeking help in obtaining legal U.S. residency or citizenship.

Diaz is a seasoned veteran, having helped thousands of immigrants and refugees from Mexico, Central and South America, Asia and more recently Africa in her 26 years as immigration supervisor for the diocese.

Her group, as well as other churches and the local branch of the International Rescue Committee, helps immigrants not only with their legal paperwork but also with adult education and how-to courses on living in the U.S.

Since the early 2000s, hundreds of refugees from Congo, Rwanda and other war-torn countries have come to Abilene.

Mayor Anthony Williams sees no irony in the area's politics and its immigration work.

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Abilene Mayor Anthony Williams talks with a visitor about immigration issues in his city. Gordon Dickson

"It amazes me, when I travel, how people perceive where I live and what we're about. It's always a good conversation to have, in educating people and eliminating those myths and providing some reality," Williams said. "We have a long tradition of reaching out to our neighbors. We have done better than most in regard to fostering an environment of culture and welcoming those who come to Abilene, Texas."

But Billy Enriques, an Abilene school board member and Baptist who for years volunteered to teach adult education courses at a local Catholic church, would like to see more done to keep children from Mexico with their parents.

"We're a refuge city for people from Africa, but I would like to see more support for people from our own continent," he said..

Gordon Dickson: 817-390-7796; @gdickson
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