Migrant children to spend Christmas in Houston-area detention facilities

HOUSTON, Texas -- About 964 migrant children will spend this Christmas housed in Houston-area detention facilities.

The latest numbers from the Office of Refugee Resettlement show a total of 577 children will be housed in Houston detainment shelters run by either Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Galveston-Houston or the Austin-based nonprofit Southwest Key Programs.

Another 387 children are in detainment between facilities in Baytown and Conroe run by BCFS Health and Human Services and Southwest Key Programs.

The number of unaccompanied immigrant children detained in Texas has surged six-fold since the beginning months of President Donald Trump's administration, according to data obtained exclusively by The Associated Press.

Texas has more children in custody than any other state. In April 2017, when border apprehensions hit a historic low point, there were 1,368 migrant children in facilities or foster care in Texas. As of Monday, Dec. 17, Texas had 8,736 such children, including 2,745 at the massive tent facility in Tornillo, a tiny border city in the West Texas desert.
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SURGE EVEN AFTER FAMILY SEPARATION

When the Trump administration stopped large-scale family separations in June, there were 5,512 children held in facilities in Texas, and 11,600 nationwide. Now, there are 8,736 children in custody in Texas and 14,314 children nationally.

The population of detained children has grown in line with apprehensions by the U.S. Border Patrol, following a historical trend.

But the Trump administration has also driven up detention times by enacting stricter background check requirements on sponsors. The administration announced Tuesday that it would reverse the policy, which was enacted in June. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has arrested 170 prospective sponsors since May for being in the country illegally.

As of Monday, 17 facilities in Texas housed more than 100 children. Most are located near the border, though Austin-based Southwest Key Programs runs two large facilities in Houston and one in suburban Conroe.

Texas is also taking on a higher share of immigrant children nationwide, detaining about 61 percent of the children in the system compared with less than 50 percent in June.
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THE DESERT TENT CITY

Perhaps the best-known symbol of growing child detention is the tent camp at Tornillo, which the AP reported was allowed to waive FBI background checks on its staff as it rapidly expands.

Opened as a temporary 360-bed facility, Tornillo has become a more permanent installation that's equipped to hold up to 3,800 children.

The facility had 278 children on June 18, according to the AP's data. Its population has surged since then, doubling in size in November and reaching 2,745 children this month.

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A LUCRATIVE BUSINESS

The U.S. government awarded almost $1 billion in just the first nine months of this year to Texas-based nonprofits holding immigrant children.

Southwest Key was granted $523 million from January to September for its facilities in Arizona, California, and Texas, according to the data. Its largest facility is Casa Padre, which opened last year in a former Walmart in Brownsville, Texas, and remains close to its capacity of 1,410 children.

BCFS Health and Human Services, which runs the Tornillo tent facility, was granted a total of $294 million in July, August and September, the first three full months Tornillo was open.

Southwest Key and BCFS are nonprofits, like most child facility operators. But Southwest Key's founder and CEO, Juan Sanchez, has come under scrutiny for his organization's salaries. Sanchez had an annual salary of $1.5 million, according to the group's most recent tax filing, and his wife was paid almost $500,000.

(The Associated Press contributed to this post)
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