Kevin Dinnin, CEO of San Antonio-based BCFS Health and Human Services, an emergency management nonprofit, is not exactly enthusiastic about operating the new holding facility built in Carrizo Springs to house “unaccompanied migrant teenagers.”
The official name is the Unaccompanied Alien Children at Carrizo Springs Temporary Shelter, one of 168 shelters in 23 states operated by various nonprofits for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), according to department spokesman Mark Weber.
“We did not build BCFS’ emergency management division for this border influx,” Dinnin said Wednesday as he conducted an impromptu press conference inside a headquarters tent, surrounded by senior staff working at large flat-screen monitors. “We don’t like doing this work…We usually are the good guys in disasters.”
Dinnin cited with pride his organization’s work along the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Harvey in 2017, and in Sutherland Springs later that same year when a lone gunman killed 26 and wounded 20 others attending Sunday services at the First Baptist Church.
“With the border influx, there will always be someone mad at me,” Dinnin said.
Dinnin said BCFS employs 2,500-3,000 people across the U.S. and also counts on 3,000 reservists. All are prepared to respond to disasters or other emergencies on short notice, knowing they might live and work on-site for extended time periods.
“We have become the unofficial retirement plan for San Antonio firefighters,” Dinnin joked, introducing several senior staff members who brought with them 30-40 years experience as first responders.
No elected officials from Washington, D.C. have visited the Carrizo Springs facility yet. When they do, they will find little to criticize beyond the fact that migrant minors, ages 13-17, are being held there pending release to an approved sponsor, which can prove to be a lengthy bureaucratic process.
In sharp contrast to the overcrowded and much-criticized border detention centers operated by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the newest migrant facility in Texas is funded through 2020 by a $300 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. BCFS will collect a far smaller sum if the teen migrant facility population does not reach capacity. Still, no expense has been spared.
The 27-acre campus, built to hold up to 2,000 young migrants, is well-maintained and deeply staffed. A staff of 749 professionals were on hand to serve 212 teens – 135 boys and 77 girls – last week when I joined a media group for a highly-monitored tour of the facility. Most hailed from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
Not all communities welcome HHS facilities. One West Virginia community slated for a shelter was removed from the list, Weber said, after citizens objected to what they saw as extravagant government spending on migrants, even as they struggled financially without such support.
On this sanitized public relations tour, there were no opportunities to interview the Central American teens. We observed the teens in small, gender-divided groups, walking between buildings, in the telephone center, and at a study hall in the shelter’s cavernous cafeteria. All wore clean clothing, and most sported pink or blue ball caps handed out earlier that day.
A medical clinic is staffed by 22 professionals, although the day we visited only three children had been treated – two for lice, one for diarrhea – according to data displayed in the headquarters trailer. Boys and girls dormitories feature comfortable bunk beds and restrooms.
In one dormitory for girls I came across a drawing next to a lower bunk in which a homesick teen had drawn a large heart around the message, “Mami and Papi; hermanitos; amigos; Frijol el perro. Los extraño.” (“Mom and Dad; little brothers and sisters; friends; Frijol the dog. I miss you.”)
Biblical quotes and religious statements adorn the dorm walls: “Todo lo puedo en Cristo que me fortalece,” could be found in each dorm. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).
There are classroom buildings and a lighted soccer field. The temporary buildings and insulated Quonset hut-style tents are air conditioned against the South Texas heat. Meals and snacks are prepared and served by San Antonio’s RK Group. BCFS workers had the local Pizza Hut deliver $3,000 worth of pizzas for the Fourth of July.
Dinnin oversees it all as the camp’s “incident commander.”
“I personally believe children should never be sent to Border Patrol facilities, not even for 72 hours,” Dinnin said. “There should be an alternative. I also believe Health and Human Services gets the blame for Border Patrol detentions.”
“Detention” is a dirty word with HHS officials. Weber asked reporters at a pre-tour briefing to use the word “shelter.” Yet armed guards control vehicle traffic and people entering and exiting through a single gate. Uniformed officers monitor closed-circuit cameras tracking people inside buildings and across the grounds. A tall, screened perimeter fence has been erected around the former “man camp” built to house oil field workers during the Eagle Ford shale boom. Military jargon extends to the names of each temporary building: Echo and Foxtrot dorms, a trailer labeled Force Response.
The teenagers cannot leave the camp. Daily schedules are highly organized and supervised. Each teenager gets two, 10-minute telephone calls a week to speak with family or sponsors. The average stay is 45 days. Reporters were forbidden to take photographs or videos during our two-hour tour or to engage teens in meaningful conversations.
“We only run two detention centers, for children who would harm themselves or would harm others,” Weber said, one in California, the other in Virginia. “We have no desire to accumulate children. This is all about getting children on their way.”
The Carrizo Springs facility was hurriedly constructed in response to the growing criticism over conditions at other camps. Weber and Dinnin both see it as an expensive and inefficient way to manage emergencies. Each migrant teen, Dinnin said, costs about $750-800 a day at current staffing and security levels. For that kind of money the teens could be housed at San Antonio’s best hotels with all meals and other expenses included.
BCFS is proposing to establish five permanent emergency shelters that can be activated as needed on short notice and thus help the government and its contractors avoid the high costs of erecting temporary camps overnight. San Antonio would be one of the five host cities, along with Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and Phoenix.
How long the Carrizo Springs facility remains open depends on the continuing ebb or flow of migrants trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Whether the Trump administration establishes the same high standards at migrant facilities managed by CPB remains to be seen.