The Department of Health and Human Services is dramatically expanding its network of child shelters across the country in order to avoid the kind of scandal that occurred in Clint, Texas, where scores of immigrant children were warehoused together.
"There are too many kids in Border Patrol stations right now, and we're working to get them out of those stations and into HHS care," says Mark Weber, HHS deputy assistant secretary for public affairs.
Last week, Congress passed a humanitarian aid bill that will pump $3 billion into HHS to beef up its child shelter network. The same week, the agency announced a new 1,300-bed emergency shelter for unaccompanied migrant children to open in Carrizo Springs, Texas, later this month.
The minors, ages 13-17, will be housed in reconverted oilfield worker housing, with the addition of a soccer field and classrooms. The children remain in government custody until they can be released to sponsors in the U.S., usually a family member.
The contract, worth up to $300 million, went to BCFS, a San Antonio nonprofit with deep experience in emergency management.
"During hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, we're the good guys that come to town. The mayor wants to take me to lunch. People pat you on the back," says BCFS chairman Kevin Dinnin, a former medic with more than 30 years of experience. "But in these immigration influx facilities, I can't win. Somebody's always going to be mad at you and you're going to be under the microscope and be criticized."
No sooner was the announcement out, than angry workers streamed into a park in Boston. They were protesting their employer, the online retailer, Wayfair, for selling BCFS $200,000 worth of bunkbeds. "Shut it down!" they chanted about the soon-to-open child shelter in South Texas.
A growing number of activists oppose every type of federal immigrant confinement: Border Patrol holding cells, ICE detention centers, and HHS child shelters.
There are currently 168 HHS shelters in 23 states. The most controversial of these are temporary emergency influx facilities, which give the government flexibility to handle spikes in migrant children. Today, there is only one emergency shelter, located at a former federal Job Corps campus in Homestead, Fla., operated by a private corporation, Caliburn International. It has 2,400 children in custody and is the site of frequent demonstrations.
Critics complain that these shelters are huge, impersonal and unlicensed, that children's movement is regimented and they are not free to leave.
Yet even attorney Neha Desai says emergency intake shelters are a major improvement over barren Border Patrol cells. She is director of immigration at the National Center for Youth Law, and one of the lawyers appointed by a federal court to oversee the conditions of migrant children in government custody.
"I mean, it's certainly good from the perspective of getting kids out of [Customs and Border Protection] facilities," she says. "We've seen the extent of inhumane, horrifying situations of unaccompanied children there. That will be alleviated by having someplace to transfer the children to. But, of course, influx facilities cannot be a long-term solution."
As a consequence of President Trump's aggressive immigration policies, there's a swelling backlash against the whole notion of the government housing migrant children.
Last week, Bank of America, under pressure from activists and shareholders, agreed to stop lending to for-profit companies that run ICE jails or HHS shelters.
Democratic presidential candidates are also piling on. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard recently visited the emergency shelter in Homestead, Fla. "Right now it looks like there's about seven or eight kids walking in a single-file line," she said, standing with demonstrators looking over the facility's fence. "This is the kind of thing you see in a prison."
Caliburn has pushed back, asking its critics to take a tour and see for themselves how the children are cared for.
Kevin Dinnin, of BCFS, has been through the fire before. He faced the wrath of protesters last year when his company ran the sprawling tent camp for children in Tornillo, in the West Texas desert. It closed in January.
"We did have threats and lots of ugly communication," he says, looking back on the Tornillo experience. "When we've been asked to respond to the border crisis, we want to be the last resort because it's so unpopular. It's a lightning rod."
Dinnin says migrant children in HHS care are heavily supervised, because teenagers will be teenagers.
"There's going to be bullies. There's going to be inappropriate language. There's going to be acting out," he says. "So in most of these facilities, the number one priority is the safety of those kids and not allow anything to happen to them."
The government has been through this before, too. HHS had to find places for nearly 60,000 unaccompanied children during a migrant surge in 2016. Now the agency is on course to surpass that total.
In addition to the BCFS shelter in South Texas, HHS is opening a second emergency shelter at Fort Sill, an army post in Lawton, Okla. And eventually, the agency wants to phase out these massive, expensive emergency shelters altogether and add smaller, licensed facilities that are more suitable for children.
"Having such a large facility is not ideal. So we've started a process where we're starting to look for shelters that would be state-licensed, and spread across a number of cities...that would be ready to go in case of an influx," says Mark Weber of HHS.
To that end, the agency recently put out a request for bids for five new child shelters — 2,500 beds, in all — in Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, Atlanta and Phoenix.
Weber says contractors have been slow to come forward.
"The environment we're working in is political, its polarizing, it's controversial, and it's incredibly emotional," he says.
Ultimately, Weber says the government wants to move the children out of Border Patrol cells, through the shelter network and into permanent homes as soon as possible.
Because HHS has streamlined its rules for vetting sponsors, the time immigrant kids spend in the shelters has been cut in half, from 91 days last November to 44 days at present.
But for some critics, that's still too long.