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More Than 250 Migrant Kids And Teens Test Positive For COVID-19 In Texas Shelters

Young migrantsare escorted by a federal agent.
AP Photo/Julio Cortez
Migrants, who were caught while trying to enter the United States while unauthorized to do so, are led by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent, second from left, at the McAllen-Hidalgo International Bridge while being deported to Reynosa, Mexico, March 18, 2021, in Hidalgo, Texas.

More than 250 kids and teens held in Texas federal migrant shelters have now tested positive for COVID-19, according to Texas Health and Human Services data — a situation that has made it more difficult to safely and quickly process minors arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border without a guardian.

At least 37 of the 44 facilities licensed by the state of Texas to care for migrant children have reported COVID-19 cases in the last two weeks, impacting 258 kids and teenagers in shelters overseen by both Texas Health and Human Services and the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. An additional three migrants tested positive in state-licensed foster care.

COVID-19 has already contributed to the need to open new temporary shelters to hold unaccompanied minors in Dallas, Carrizo Springs, Midland and Pecos. The federal government is now scouting additional locations in Texas, including sites on military bases in Lackland and Fort Bliss, according to the Pentagon.

Last week, the Associated Press reported more than 50 migrant children tested positive for the disease in the temporary Midland shelter, and one child had to be hospitalized.

Federal officials have been overwhelmed by a seasonal uptick in migrant teens arriving at the border, and shelter capacity has been limited due to COVID-19 safety protocols.

The permanent migrant shelters and foster homes scattered across Texas are licensed to hold up to 7,696 teens. Only about half of that shelter space is accounted for, according to state health officials.

In a statement, the Office of Refugee Resettlement — which oversees the care of migrant teens and their unification with family members — said it “has worked to build up its licensed bed capacity and currently funds over 13,450 licensed beds (the highest in the program's history), the COVID-19 pandemic has created conditions that have limited placement at ORR's licensed shelter facilities.”

After staying in shelters, the vast majority of these children, who arrived at the border without a guardian, will be placed with family members living inside the United States.

In late January, the average length of stay in these facilities before being united with family was 42 days, which attorney and Project Lifeline executive director Hope Frye said is already too long. These kids could be united with families within 10 days, Frye said..

“Government processes need to be well managed and expeditiously handled,” Frye said.

Frye, who has made several visits to both children and family detention centers, said she expects that because of the influx in kids, wait times at shelters are likely longer than 42 days.

“Any place where you have large congregate care settings for children are traumatic, unhealthy and abusive,” Frye said. “You can not put children in large settings and expect to care for them properly. These are children who are traumatized at home, they’re traumatized in their journey.”

Texas Public Radio’s María Méndez contributed to the reporting of this story.

Elizabeth Trovall is an immigration reporter for Houston Public Media. She joined the News 88.7 team after several years abroad in Santiago, Chile, where she reported on business, energy, politics and culture. Trovall’s work has been featured on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered, Marketplace, Here and Now, Latino USA, Texas Standard and Only A Game. She graduated from University of Missouri’s Reynolds Institute of Journalism, where she reported for the local public radio station KBIA.