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Ellis, Rockwall Counties Prepare For Hundreds Of Immigrant Children

Update, Friday afternoon: The first group of immigrant children arrived in Ellis County late Friday afternoon. 

BREAKING: 2 buses carrying first Central American immigrant children arrive in Ellis County @NBCDFW — ScottGordonNBC5 (@ScottGordonNBC5) December 11, 2015

Our earlier story: Officials in two North Texas counties are preparing for the arrival of up to 1,000 undocumented children who are without their parents.

Adult workers who will be helping to take care of the kids are arriving in Ellis County Thursday afternoon. The children should start arriving Friday. They’re going to the Lakeview Camp and Retreat Center near Waxahachie. They’ll stay for three weeks.

Elsewhere, Rockwall County has been told that up to 300 unaccompanied children will be relocated to a temporary camp in the county.

At a press conference Thursday morning, Ellis County Sheriff Johnny Brown said he didn’t get much time to prepare but says his department is ready.

“I want to make sure the citizens of Ellis County know that this is under control and we have everything secure and they have no fears at this point. We do have a plan in place for any kind of emergencies,” Brown said. “This will become a miniature city for the next 21 days. They have fire control, EMS, everything under control.”

The children are expected to be mostly boys ages 12-17 from Central America.

Rick DuBose, an official with the Lakeview camp, says the kids have been through a difficult time.

“We didn’t feel like there was any way we could turn them away and not care for them and feed them when we have the beds that are empty and food that can be served and a process here,” DuBose said. “It’s our slowest time of year.  So we were very available. We’ve jumped on it. We’re honored to give these kids a place to live for the next three weeks.”

Many of the children will eventually go back to their home countries, but some could eventually stay with family members or sponsors in the United States, officials say.

Officials in Ellis and Rockwall counties had conference calls with federal officials in recent days. Federal officials say there’s been an increase in the number of unaccompanied children and family members along the U.S.-Mexico border. In response, they’re expanding facilities in the state that house immigrants -- and adding temporary spaces.

A Rockwall County press release says the 300 children will stay at Sabine Creek Ranch for up to 21 days, but the ranch says on its website it has not received a "formal request." The Health and Human Services department will take care of the children, the county says. There will be no cost to public schools or Rockwall County, officials say. 

"Rockwall County is sensitive to the hardships and needs of these unaccompanied children," according to a statement on the county's website. "However, Rockwall County’s first priority is to the safety and security of the citizens of Rockwall County."


'A prudent step'

The  Department of Homeland Security and Department of Health and Human Services released a statement Thursday morning:

"Out of an abundance of caution, the Office of Refugee Resettlement at HHS has begun a process to expand its temporary capacity to house unaccompanied children," the statement says. "This is a prudent step to ensure that the Border Patrol can continue its vital national security mission to prevent illegal migration, trafficking, and protect the borders of the United States."

The statement continues:

As we have highlighted over the last few months, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have noted an increase in the number of unaccompanied children (UAC) and family units apprehended along the southwest border. The entire administration has been closely monitoring these current trends and coordinating across the whole of government to ensure an effective response to any changes in migration flows. DHS and HHS are working together to accommodate these children without disrupting the vital national security mission of the Border Patrol and have begun a process to expand HHS temporary capacity to shelter unaccompanied children. The Office of Refugee Resettlement at HHS increased the capacity of current providers from 7,900 to 8,400 beds in November and is preparing for temporary bed space in the event that additional beds may be needed. ORR is continuously analyzing and monitoring bed capacity of unaccompanied children referred to HHS, as well as the information received from interagency partners, to inform any future decisions or actions. We continue to aggressively work to secure our borders, address underlying causes and deter future increases in unauthorized migration, while ensuring that those with legitimate humanitarian claims are afforded the opportunity to seek protection. We also continue to look at broader regional efforts to address the flow of children and family units from Central America into the United States.

Barton, Abbott express disappointment 

U.S. Rep. Joe Barton issued a statement saying he has “vigorously protested” the relocation of the children.

"I am very disappointed in the way the Obama administration notified me and the people I represent in the 6th district of Texas about the relocation of the unaccompanied minors,” Barton said. “There was no public meeting organized in advance locally, and no ability to protest the decision. My office was notified two days ago, and at my insistence, local officials were subsequently notified.

"I have vigorously protested this action. Yesterday, I spoke to the Secretary of HHS, her senior staff, and other congressional and state leaders to express my concerns and attempt to prevent the transfer. Unfortunately, under current state and federal law, this specific action cannot be stopped.

"My priority remains to ensure the safety of my constituents. I will continue to work closely with federal, state, and local officials to monitor this situation for the next 21 days. I am also working to prevent a reoccurrence and to change the law."

On Thursday, Gov. Greg Abbott expressed concerns about a "broken immigration system." WFAA-TV reports:Abbott said that he "'warned' the federal government in September that, if nothing was done to increase border security, Texas would be presented with more undocumented immigrants entering the state. Abbott sent a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson demanding more law enforcement at the border, he said."

Rio Grande Valley seeing more children crossing the border

Last year, Dallas County had plans to house 2,000 immigrant children in temporary shelters. But the children didn’t come because the number of child refugees crossing from Mexico into Texas had dropped by half, officials said. Instead, they could be housed at existing shelters along the U.S.-Mexico border and at three military bases: Lackland in San Antonio, Fort Sill in Oklahoma and the Ventura County naval base in California.

But, this fall, Rio Grande Valley shelters have seen a surge of immigrants. The Brownsville Herald reports:

Rio Grande Valley shelters are filling up amid a new surge of undocumented immigrant children, most fleeing violence from Central American countries, immigration attorneys said. Since Oct. 1, U.S. Border Patrol agents have apprehended 4,973 undocumented immigrant children along the Southwest border, 3,036 in the Rio GrandeValley area, Border Patrol statistics show. The numbers soared from October 2014, when 2,519 undocumented immigrant children were apprehended along the Southwest, with 1,547 in the Valley. “We are closely monitoring current trends and coordinating across the whole of government to ensure an effective response to any changes in migration flows,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in a statement.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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.
Eric Aasen is KERA’s managing editor. He helps lead the station's news department, including radio and digital reporters, producers and newscasters. He also oversees, the station’s news website, and manages the station's digital news projects. He reports and writes stories for the website and contributes pieces to KERA radio. He's discussed breaking news live on various public radio programs, including The Takeaway, Here & Now and Texas Standard, as well as radio and TV programs in New Zealand and the United Kingdom.