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7 Staff Members Test Positive At Houston-Area Shelter For Migrant Children

As the coronavirus starts to spread in Houston-area migrant shelters, attorneys and advocates say kids need to be rapidly reunited with family members in the United States and released from detention.

Migrant teens line up for a class at a "tender-age" facility for babies, children and teens, in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, in San Benito, Texas.
Migrant teens line up for a class at a “tender-age” facility for babies, children and teens, in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, in San Benito, Texas.

Updated 10:22 a.m. CT Wednesday: BCFS Health and Human Services, which operates the shelter, said it was taking additional protective measures in response to the seven coronavirus cases. The group also said the youngest child in its care at the facility is 12 years old.

The coronavirus is starting to spread in Houston-area shelters that house detained migrant children.

Seven staff members at a Baytown shelter have tested positive for COVID-19, according to BCFS Health and Human Services, which operates the shelter. Staff who tested positive for the disease are in quarantine.

The shelter holds migrant children ages 5 to 17 who came to the United States unaccompanied, or without their parents. The youngest child currently being held at the shelter is 12 years old.

None of the migrants there now have tested positive for COVID-19 so far, though seven have been tested.

There are about 38 migrants being held at the shelter, according to a March data from Texas Health and Human Services.

BCFS Health and Human Services said they were providing the necessary personal protective equipment to all of their shelters, using isolation procedures and have an epidemiologist on staff.

Meanwhile, immigration legal providers say they’re concerned about the health and safety of the migrant children within the facility, and the thousands of migrant children being held nationwide.

“The nature of detention provides no options for children and staff to follow federally mandated social distancing guidelines, and their communal living conditions places them at a higher risk of contracting coronavirus,” said YMCA International’s director of immigration legal services Elizabeth Sanchez-Kennedy.

Project Lifeline, a nonprofit that advocates for migrant children, has been circulating a petition calling for the immediate release of kids so they they can be reunified with their families living in the United States.

Project Lifeline’s co-founder, neurologist Dona Murphey, said she fears a shortage of personal protective equipment among Office of Refugee Settlement staff in Greater Houston.

“With evidence that transmission is asymptomatic and increasing concern that it can be airborne, these facilities are public health catastrophes in the making,” Murphey said. “(Shelters) do not have sufficient airborne infection and isolation rooms with negative pressure ventilation should more than just a handful of children be infected.”

Though Texas hasn’t seen any positive cases among migrant children, five kids have tested positive for COVID-19 in two New York City-based shelters, according to U.S. Health and Human Services.

That’s caused the Office of Refugee Resettlement to limit the release and reunification of children there, extending the length of their detention.

3,100 children

What to do with the 3,100 migrant infants, children and teens in federal custody amid COVID-19 is the subject of a new order in a long-standing federal lawsuit.

Under the Flores Settlement Agreement, which requires the federal government provide a minimum standard of care to migrant children, California Judge Dolly M. Gee ordered that migrants be rapidly reunited with guardians in the U.S. and released from federal care.

The order also stipulates that agencies provide a planning document April 6 to show how they’ll comply.

But Project Lifeline executive director and attorney Hope Frye has her doubts.

“I wonder how many of those children are actually ready to be released,” said Frye. She said there’s “tremendous disorganization” within some of these shelters — and the organizations running shelters have a financial incentive to slow down the reunification of kids and their parents, she added.

“Contractors who run these shelters on behalf of ORR make a per head, per diem fee off the child,” she said. “So the incentive to release children quickly is very low.”

Frye, a watchdog and attorney who has made several visits to both children and family detention centers, said even during normal times, those facilities aren’t equipped to deal with medical problems. She cited the example of Yazmin Juárez, 2-year-old baby who died after medical neglect at a family residential center in Dilley, Texas.

“(Yazmin) died after release from a condition that if it had been properly treated, would have been relatively nominal,” Frye said.

“I’ve seen kids who had terrible flus who were given a Tylenol and sent back into their daily life, living in congregate care with thousands of other children,” she said.

In Judge Dolly M. Gee’s order, she wrote that ORR, “still fails to address recommendations related to social distancing, personal hygiene, or personal protective equipment, among others.”

In another ongoing lawsuit, O.M.G. v Wolf, three dozen detained migrant families have filed suit against the Department of Homeland Security, seeking release from family residential detention centers, like Karnes and Dilley.

D.C.-based Judge James Boasberg has not ordered detained families be released, but is requiring Immigration and Customs Enforcement provide infection protocols for adults that comply with CDC guidelines, among other protective measures.

According to the New York Times, some 3,300 kids are being held with their parents in these migrant family residential facilities. That’s in addition to the 3,100 migrant children in Office of Refugee Resettlement custody, who are waiting to be reunited with a guardian in the United States.