‘The chaotic nature makes people panic and shows that the (immigration) system is not working…’
(Obed Manuel and Alfredo Corchado, Dallas Morning News) Thousands of asylum-seeking children could be headed to Dallas as the federal government looks to relieve pressure on a bloated immigration system and overwhelmed nonprofit shelters along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has contacted Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins to gauge the county’s willingness and ability to house some migrants as shelters along the border become overwhelmed by the number of asylum seekers vying to stay in the U.S.
Jenkins said his office received a letter from HHS Regional Director Fred Schuster, informing him that Dallas was being scouted as a possible shelter location.
“I let him know that we are ready, willing and able to help out these kids,” Jenkins said. “I asked him to let us do our part.”
A HHS spokesperson confirmed that the Office of Refugee Resettlement in HHS’ Administration for Children and Families is assessing vacant properties in Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio and Houston for “potential future use as state-licensed permanent shelter locations for unaccompanied alien children.”
Other cities being looked at are Phoenix and Atlanta. HHS is considering adding shelters to avoid using temporary shelters, like the Tornillo tent city in Texas.
The development comes as apprehensions for the month of March are projected to rise to more than 100,000, with some experts concerned that totals could exceed 150,000 in the coming months.
On the border, the situation continues to have the look of a crisis: Troops are deployed, lining concertina wire on steel bollard fences. Border Patrol agents are rounding up hundreds of migrants and showcasing them to the media.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents are reassigned to process the surge of migrant families entering the U.S., creating long lines, increasing wait times. The shelters that provide these migrants temporary shelter are overflowing.
It looks and feels chaotic.
“The chaotic nature makes people panic and shows that the (immigration) system is not working,” said Ruth Wasem, an immigration policy expert at the University of Texas at Austin. “This situation raises a question: Is this crisis manufactured by design, or is it a crisis that was a result of flawed judgement?”
An announcement on the apprehensions planned for Monday by acting director of Homeland Security Kevin K. McAleenan, who replaced Kirstjen Nielsen over the weekend, was postponed for Wednesday.
The current surge of asylum seekers has led to what advocates call a humanitarian crisis that puts the immigration system at “a breaking point,” as McAleenan said recently in El Paso.
But the number of migrants crossing illegally now remains below the historic monthly highs of the late ‘90s and early 2000s, when up to 200,000 mostly Mexican men entered the U.S.
The migrants making news now are mostly Central Americans seeking asylum, a legal albeit difficult path to a permanent life in the country.
Theresa Brown, director of Immigration and Cross-Border Policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said drawing parallels doesn’t help public understanding of the current issue. The dynamics between the two waves couldn’t be more different.
“In my opinion, yes, this is a crisis,” she said. “But a different type than just the absolute numbers of apprehensions would indicate. Talking about this in the terms of historical illegal immigration is not helping understand what is happening.”
She added that the issue isn’t so much about numbers, but who “they are, and the fact that they are not traditional migrants seeking to ‘sneak in’ to work. The crisis is that the numbers are families with children seeking asylum and not from Mexico. And they are coming in large groups — larger than we’ve seen before. So, I’d say it is an ‘asylum crisis,’ not an ‘immigration crisis’ per se.”
Marsha Gordon, a 66-year-old Dallas resident, helped out at a volunteer-run McAllen shelter on March 18 and saw first-hand how the shelters federal officials work with are struggling to receive hundreds of migrants every day.
About 700 migrants were there when she arrived, Gordon said, but about 1,000 more showed up in the six hours she was there. Most were families with children, she added.
The hallways, she said, were lined with people waiting for a ride to the bus station. Volunteers worked frantically to feed and clothe migrants and their children. Water use was limited as the crowd grew.
“You ladle soup, prepare salad. You think you’re going to have a moment to breathe and suddenly something else comes up,” Gordon said.
Jenkins said Dallas officials have previously made publicly owned facilities available to the federal government for use as shelters for unaccompanied children.
In 2014, Jenkins said, when a surge of mostly Central American unaccompanied minors flooded the border, Dallas County and Dallas Independent School District offered to take in as many as 2,000 children to be housed at vacant school buildings. But as the flow of minors fell, the federal government saw no need to send the children to Dallas for shelter.
Dallas officials also offered to help last year, when the Trump administration began enforcing its “zero-tolerance” policy that resulted in thousands of children being separated from their parents.
But again the federal government opted not to send families and children to Dallas after Trump moved to end the controversial policy.
Last year, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, the city of Dallas opened up the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center and three satellite shelters to house about 4,000 evacuees.
Right now, Jenkins said, most local efforts to aid migrants revolves around collecting essentials to send to the shelters and sending teams of volunteers to help at shelters, though he feels it would be much easier to do this work if some of the migrants were brought to and temporarily housed in Dallas.
“It’s important for the public to remember that 100 percent of the costs are borne by the federal government. They have to pay as they go,” Jenkins said.
(Manuel reported from Dallas and Corchado reported from El Paso.)
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