Dallas and San Antonio sites used to house migrant children set to close within weeks

Two large sites in Texas used to shelter unaccompanied migrant children amid the influx in arrivals earlier this year will close by early June, the Department of Health and Human Services Department confirmed, marking among the first closures as the number of kids in border facilities drops.

In March, the Biden administration took the unprecedented step of opening up emergency intake sites at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas and the Freeman Coliseum in San Antonio to accommodate thousands of children who arrived at the US-Mexico border alone.

The sites were intended to be temporary and a result, some leases are set to expire. The lease for the San Antonio site expires May 30 and the lease for the Dallas site expires June 2. HHS said it doesn’t anticipate extending either leases and is working to unify minors with their sponsors, such as family or guardians, in the US.

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The sites are not the first to shutter. One previously announced site in Houston abruptly transferred girls out of the facility, with no explanation from HHS. And a facility in Erie, Pennsylvania, also stopped sheltering children.

In Dallas, concerns over an upcoming QAnon conference in the city also contributed to transferring children out of the facility before the lease expired, according to two sources familiar with the planning. HHS declined to provide additional information on the matter.

The closures suggest some level of progress, though the administration is still considering opening up new sites and expanding existing ones. Camp Roberts, a military site, in California is among those. HHS told CNN the site is under “active consideration” and that when a decision is made, state and local authorities, as well as lawmakers will be notified.

The department is also considering expanding its site at Fort Bliss, near El Paso, Texas, to its potential capacity of 10,000 beds, according to documents obtained by CNN.

HHS has a licensed bed capacity of around 13,500 equipped with a myriad of services, like education and recreation, to accommodate kids who cross the US-Mexico border alone until they can be relocated to a sponsor in the US.

Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, the department was operating under reduced capacity, catching the incoming Biden administration flat-footed when the number of minors crossing the US southern border jumped and forcing officials to rely on convention centers, military sites, among other sites to house children.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who cast blame on the previous administration for its lack of preparedness, touted the Biden administration’s progress in transferring hundreds of migrant children out of jail-like Border Patrol facilities to HHS custody, but conceded “the challenge is not behind us.”

“Not only did we mobilize the talented workforce of the Department of Homeland Security, in partnership with our colleagues at HHS. We have also been reengineering the process from start to finish and creating new efficiencies. These changes are reducing the time a child spends in the shelter and care of HHS before being united with her or his parent or legal guardian in the US,” he told lawmakers during a Senate hearing Thursday.

The newness of these types of temporary sites was clear from the onset as officials raced to provide services to children and local groups urgently sought volunteers to provide immediate assistance.

While efforts have been made to bolster resources, the use of the sites have come under increased scrutiny as hundreds of kids languish in what’s been described as emergency-like shelters. At the Dallas convention center, for example, the space looks more like a FEMA emergency shelter, than a traditional HHS shelter, with cots lined up in a large space.

The San Antonio site also became a point of contention last month, when Texas Republican Gov. Gregg Abbott — without citing any evidence — said the state had received tips that children housed in a San Antonio facility were being sexually abused, but the reports disclosed by the state didn’t contain those specific allegations, nor do they state who has made the complaints and what access they have to the facility.

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra told lawmakers Wednesday that the administration is “on top of any reports, any allegations of abuse” at facilities caring for migrant children.

Asked by Rep. Brett Guthrie, R-Kentucky, about abuse allegations at the facility, Becerra replied: “We are absolutely on top of any reports, any allegations of abuse.”

“We take our role very seriously of making sure that not only do we follow the law when it comes to the care of these migrant children but that we provide them with the well-being they deserve while they’re in our custody,” he added.