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Dallas County Makes Plans To Welcome 2,000 Immigrant Children

Dallas County plans to soon welcome 2,000 of the 52,000 children who’ve entered the country illegally in recent months. They’re coming from Central America and crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Many are trying to escape violence and drug cartels.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins was in the border town of McAllen Wednesday and toured immigration centers that are sheltering children. Three of the Dallas County shelters were announced Thursday afternoon. (Read more about that here.)

The Dallas delegation, which included State Sen. Royce West, went to McAllen detention centers where mostly unaccompanied children were living. Reporters weren’t allowed inside. After the visit, West called what he saw deplorable. He saw 15 to 20 children stuffed in rooms designed for just five – and they shared one bathroom. Many of the kids hadn’t bathed in days, West said.

“Based on even the most fundamental standards that we have in the United States, the conditions they’re living in right now would not be acceptable to Texans,” West said.

Jenkins told critics to stand aside.

“Whatever you think about immigration, these are children," Jenkins said. "We have the capability to ensure that this is handled in a safe way. Step back and let us do our jobs. Remember, if the shoe were on the other foot, and it was your child that’s 1,000 miles away from you, you would be praying for someone to do what we’re trying to do now.”

Here’s the latest on the county’s plans:

Credit Doualy Xaykaothao / KERA News
This is one of the detention centers in McAllen that's housing immigrant children from Central America.

Locations to be announced: Jenkins says plans to transfer some of the immigrant children to Dallas County began a little over a week ago. Local religious leaders returned from the Rio Grande Valley where they visited cramped holding centers with children eating in rooms with open toilets. 

“They’re scared,” Jenkins said earlier this week.“They’re not able to be inoculated in these facilities. They can’t get the sort of complete care they need. So we need to do what we can to help those children get over this traumatic event and provide them some compassionate care.”

Jenkins says federal officials have been scouting for three locations in Dallas County that could each shelter up to 1,000 children. They’re looking at empty hospitals and schools with space for dormitory-style housing. Dallas Independent School District officials have been talking with Jenkins and federal agencies about offering up closed school buildings, a spokesman said.

Credit Doualy Xaykaothao / KERA News
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, on the left, and State Sen. Royce West arrived at the McAllen airport to tour detention facilities.

Three of the Dallas County shelters were announced Thursday afternoon. (Read more about that here.) They are Hulcy Middle School on Polk Street in Dallas; Lamar Alternative Education Program on Walnut Street in Grand Prairie; and a Parkland Hospital building on Butler Street.

The kids could arrive in North Texas by the end of July.

  Who’s going to pay? Jenkins says the federal government will pick up the costs that include housing, medical, counseling and education needs. He’s hoping local groups will also contribute.

“I’d love to see a group like the [Texas] Baptist Men come in and feed these children once or twice a week foods they’re used to eating at home," Jenkins said. "I’d love to see us have religious services at the facilities. I’d love to see partners like AT&T provide some communications and televisions to watch soccer and cartoons on.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Texas Baptist Men posted a note on its Facebook page, saying it didn’t have any “set plans” to help with the children who are going to Dallas, but that plans could change.  

Mostly support, but some concern: North Texas Democrats expressed qualified support for Jenkins’ plan. “It’s a humanitarian crisis. And we need to do as a community what is morally right,” said State Sen. Royce West, who believes holding community meetings to develop public support is crucial.  West also wants to make sure the children aren’t all housed in the same part of the county. “We need to make sure these are not all in one neighborhood. And we need to make sure, No. 1, that we put a cap on the number of individuals we are going to be taking in,” West said.

But Dallas County Commissioner Mike Cantrell, a Republican, told The Dallas Morning News he’s opposed to county involvement. “We need to have compassion for people who stand in line to come to America the legal way … It’s not our taxpayers’ problem. It’s the federal government’s problem,” Cantrell told The News.

Groups caught off guard: Many groups didn’t get advance notice of the county’s plans. Vanna Slaughter, director of Catholic Charities’ immigration and legal services, said she was surprised by Jenkins’ announcement over the weekend.She learned about it from media reports. She says it’s the right thing to do.

“I’ve been in a lot of border patrol processing facilities and they are not child friendly,” Slaughter said. “They’re very sterile and inappropriate places to be processing these kids, so I’m very heartened that officials here in the city of Dallas, in my hometown, are stepping up to do this and I hope that other cities and jurisdictions will follow the lead.”

The kids coming in won’t be the first to go through this process in North Texas. Since January, about 1,000 children have been released to relatives in this area, Slaughter said. Those children will appear in Dallas’ immigration court. Catholic Charities has provided legal help for these children and their guardians for the past four years. Demand has surged in the last few months.

Catholic Charities officials said Wednesday they're getting many phone calls from individuals and organizations asking how they can help the children. Catholic Charities has posted information here.

In a commentary that aired on KERA 90.1 FM in March,William Holston, president of Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, explains why the children who are leaving Central America need legal help.

Credit Doualy Xaykaothao / KERA News
A federal patrol boat monitored the Texas-Mexico border.

  What do people in McAllen think? Many locals can understand why parents want a better life for their kids, but McAllen native Celia Cavazos says sending the kids across the border isn't right.And she doesn't think the kids should be moved to Dallas.

"I think that they should go back to their families. Because if they don't know anybody here, how are they going to make a life," Cavazos says. "They are so small, to make decisions, to get work, we're going to be paying for all that."

Her friend, Connie Garza, agrees. Garza is a teacher in nearby Brownsville, a city that's already host to some of the migrant children. "I come from parents that came from Mexico," Garza says. "And I'm proud of being a Mexican-American  citizen. And I think that people that want to make it in the United States should do it the right way, and not be a burden on the citizens; we already have problems in the United States." 

New immigration campaign announced: In related immigration news, U.S. Customs and Border Protection on Wednesday announced a new advertising campaign to try to slow the number of immigrants crossing the U.S. border. More than 200 immigrants have died while crossing the border since last fall, said Gil Kerlikowske, U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner. 

How you can help: Catholic Charities has posted information here.

Doualy Xaykaothao is a newscaster and reporter for NPR, based in Culver City. She returned to NPR for this role in 2018, and is responsible for writing, producing, and delivering national newscasts. She also reports on breaking news stories for NPR.
Former KERA staffer Shelley Kofler was news director, managing editor and senior reporter. She is an award-winning reporter and television producer who previously served as the Austin bureau chief and legislative reporter for North Texas ABC affiliate WFAA-TV.
Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.