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Trump Administration To Put $3 Billion Into Network Of Shelters For Migrant Children


The Trump administration is pumping $3 billion into the federal network of shelters for migrant children. Officials want to move them out of Border Patrol facilities, where children say they're crammed into cells without enough food or other necessities. Critics, though, say kids should not be confined at all. NPR's John Burnett has more.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The Department of Health and Human Services is dramatically expanding its network of child shelters across the country in order to avoid the scandal in Clint, Texas, where scores of immigrant children were warehoused together. Mark Weber is a spokesman for HHS.

MARK WEBER: There are too many kids in Border Patrol stations right now. And we're working to get them out of those Border Patrol stations and into HHS care.

BURNETT: HHS has announced a new 1,300-bed emergency shelter for unaccompanied migrant children to open in Carrizo Springs, Texas, later this summer. The children are in government custody until they can be released to sponsors in the U.S. The $300 million contract went to BCFS, a San Antonio nonprofit with deep experience in the field of emergency response. The company's chairman is Kevin Dinnin.

KEVIN DINNIN: During hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes, we're the good guys have come to town. The mayor wants to take me lunch. And people pat you on the back. 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.

BURNETT: No sooner was the announcement out than angry workers streamed into a park in Boston. They were protesting their company, the online retailer Wayfair, for selling BCFS 200,000 dollars' worth of bunk beds.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Shut it down.

BURNETT: 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 168 of these shelters across the country. The most controversial are temporary emergency influx facilities. They're huge and unlicensed. Children's movement is regimented, and they're not free to leave. Yet even attorney Neha Desai says they're a major improvement over Border Patrol cells. She's one of the lawyers appointed by a federal court to oversee the conditions of migrant children in government custody.

NEHA DESAI: I mean, it's certainly good from the perspective of getting kids out of CBP facilities. But, of course, influx facility is cannot be a long-term solution.

BURNETT: Nonetheless, 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. Representative Tulsi Gabbard visited the emergency shelter in Homestead, Fla., to stand with demonstrators looking over the fence.

TULSI GABBARD: Right now it looks like there's about seven or eight kids walking in a single-file line. This is the kind of thing that you see in a prison. This is the kind of thing...

BURNETT: 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. Yes, he concedes the children are heavily supervised. His shelter only houses adolescents. And he says teenagers will be teenagers.

DINNIN: There's going to be bullies. There's going to be inappropriate language. There's going to be acting out. So in most of these facilities, the No. 1 priority is the safety of those kids - and not allow anything to happen to them.

BURNETT: The government has been through this before, too. HHS had to find places for nearly 60,000 unaccompanied children in 2016. Now the agency is on course to surpass that. They're opening the new facility in south Texas and a second emergency shelter at Fort Sill, Okla. Eventually, HHS wants to phase out these massive, expensive emergency shelters altogether. The agency wants to add smaller, licensed facilities that are more suitable for children. To that end, HHS 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. But Mark Weber of HHS says contractors have been slow to come forward.

WEBER: The environment that we're working in is political. It's polarizing. It's controversial. And it's incredibly emotional.

BURNETT: 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. The time kids spend in HHS custody has been cut in half, since last year, to 44 days. But for some critics, that's still too long. John Burnett, NPR News Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.