Bexar County has entered an agreement with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to provide temporary shelter for unaccompanied migrant children. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

This article has been updated.

Bexar County’s Joe Freeman Coliseum will house unaccompanied migrant minors in the coming days, along with facilities at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.

The County entered a temporary agreement with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to provide shelter, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said at a news conference Friday. The coliseum can house up to 2,400 minors.

The contract with HHS starts Saturday, said Derrick Howard, the coliseum’s executive director. The lease will last 60 days, expiring on May 31, but the County and HHS are both able to give a seven-day notice to leave the agreement.

HHS will run shelter operations at the Freeman Coliseum and provide cots with bed sheets, daily indoor and outdoor recreation, medical and mental health services on site, meals and snacks, portable showers and port-a-potties, and extra clothes and shoes for the youths housed there. The County will provide tables and chairs, draping to split the Coliseum’s expo hall into three sections (two for housing and one for recreation and eating), and entertainment options.

Before they arrive in San Antonio, the unaccompanied minors will be tested for the novel coronavirus, Wolff said. They will be required to wear masks while at the Freeman Coliseum and will be tested every five days.

The County’s expenses will be reimbursed by the federal government, Howard said. He estimated the upfront cost for the County to be around $20,000.

County officials had stressed earlier this week that a contract had not yet been signed, but in a series of tweets Thursday, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) announced that Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland would have 350 beds and the Freeman Coliseum would have 2,400 beds for unaccompanied minors. At that point, County had not yet signed an agreement with the federal government to use the Freeman Coliseum.

While adult migrants fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security, HHS is responsible for minors who cross the U.S. border unaccompanied or who are separated from their parents. Lack of space at facilities run by HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement has prompted federal officials to look elsewhere for additional housing until the minors can be placed with relatives or sponsors.

Most of the minors are from Honduras and El Salvador, according to officials.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg said Thursday that HHS told local officials the agency was not vetting any other San Antonio facilities for unaccompanied migrant minors.

“What we hope is that in dealing and responding to what is again a humanitarian crisis, that these children … are treated with the utmost compassion and care,” he said Thursday.

There has been an increase in apprehensions of migrants in recent months. The Texas Tribune reported that in February more than 100,000 people were either apprehended by or surrendered to federal immigration officials. That figure included about 9,460 unaccompanied minors, a 60% increase compared to January.

If the influx of migrant minors does not ebb, Wolff said he is open to extending the coliseum lease with HHS.

“We don’t know for sure how long this will go,” he said. “Our [lease] is for 60 days, but we don’t know how long pressures will continue at the border. We don’t have to do this. We’ve chosen to do this. It’s a humanitarian issue. … These are children and a good, solid, strong community reaches out to help people like that, and that’s what we’re doing today.”

Judge Nelson Wolff arrives to the Bexar County Courthouse to announce the agreement with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to shelter up to 2400 unaccompanied migrant children at the Freeman Coliseum.
Judge Nelson Wolff arrives at the Bexar County Courthouse to announce the agreement with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to shelter up to 2,400 unaccompanied migrant children at the Freeman Coliseum. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The Immigrant Legal Resource Center, SA Stands, Texas Organizing Project (TOP), National Lawyers Guild, and the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel sent a news release Thursday demanding that County officials create a “community-centered model” when detaining migrant children at the Freeman Coliseum.

“This housing accommodation should also be accessible to or near all of the services that the children will need – food, clothing, a cell phone to remain in contact with social workers, legal, and health services. All services must be provided at no cost to the children,” Texas Organizing Project’s Jessica Azua said in a statement. “To make this reality, Bexar County must partner with the numerous local groups and service providers who are willing and qualified to support. This would be a community-driven response in action.”

Wolff said he spoke with TOP members earlier Friday to “include the local community as much as possible.” HHS ultimately aims to reunite unaccompanied minors with family members in the United States, not deport them, Wolff stressed. If no family members can be located, migrant minors will be transferred to licensed care facilities such as St. Peter-St. Joseph Children’s Home.

Local officials, including Sheriff Javier Salazar, have expressed concern about housing migrant children in County-owned property. 

“I do not believe we should agree to house them, and I do not want to allow my deputies to be used in that capacity, as this crisis seems to show no signs of slowing down,” Salazar said in an email to county commissioners Tuesday. “From what I have seen, the children are not being kept in the best conditions, and there has been a long standing history for a lack of transparency with the media regarding the housing conditions DHS provides for undocumented migrants.”

Bexar County sheriff deputies will not be needed to help with security efforts, as the Department of Homeland Security will be responsible for that, Wolff said.

Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores (Pct. 3) said she supported housing the minors in San Antonio.

“If this helps to alleviate the overcrowding at the border, then who are we to tell children no, you are not welcome?” she asked. “If your child had a crisis or an emergency and they ran to their neighbor to the north and knocked on the door and pleaded and that neighbor on the north didn’t open the door, what would you think of that neighbor?

“We are being good Texans and good neighbors, opening our doors to children and opening doors to children who have not traveled on a leisurely trip, who have overcome sex trafficking, abuse, poverty, gang violence. And all children have hope of a better tomorrow … to learn, to dream, to have a future. That is why we are here today.”

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.