Only one child in federal custody at the Freeman Coliseum has been reunited with his family.
The vast majority of the 1,898 children ages 13-17 who remain at the facility have been there long past the five- to seven-day timeline that immigrant rights groups were told to expect before authorities reunited the children with their families.
These were the observations members of those groups shared at a press conference on Sunday after they toured the facility, where they said some staff alluded to preparing the facility to keep the children for up to sixty days, the length of the site’s contract.
“We should not be getting a tour just to find out all this information,” said Jessica Azúa, a campaign coordinator with the Texas Organizing Project. She and other organizers on the tour, including representatives from SA Stands and the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, stressed a desire for more transparency at the facility.
Media has not been allowed inside the coliseum, where armed security is stationed outside. Bexar County has allowed the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to use the site as one of several facilities across the county to house migrant children detained while crossing the southern border unaccompanied. U.S. Border Patrol took into custody nearly 19,000 unaccompanied migrant children in March – a record number.
The organizers’ tour on Sunday was secured by U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-San Antonio), who toured the facility Friday with eight Texas legislators, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, and County Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores (Pct. 1).
“This is happening in our backyard,” said Juany Torres, a policy advisor with SA Stands. “If we don’t know what’s going on, we will be complicit – whether that’s adequate food, adequate language services, adequate mental health, adequate activities. We need to ensure the human dignity of these children, no matter where they’re from, is valued and prioritized.”
She and other organizers called for regular updates, either daily or weekly, about the facility, such as the number of children taken in, the number reunited, and the number of children testing positive for the coronavirus.
Last Wednesday, the coliseum held only 1,645 boys.
Organizers said they did not witness anything firsthand that would confirm or deny allegations publicized by Gov. Greg Abbott in a press conference on Wednesday, which was held in the same spot as their own. Abbott said he had directed the Texas Rangers and the Department of Public Safety to investigate complaints made to state agencies alleging sexual assault, inadequate staffing and nutrition, as well as shoddy coronavirus prevention measures at the facility.
Organizers characterized Abbott’s comments, which included a call to shut down the facility, as politically motivated and “out of touch” with the needs of immigrants.
“We’re asking for it to continue to serve as a processing center,” said Torres. “The expediency of the family reunification is our top priority.”
Torres said that if children are not reunified at these temporary facilities, they go back into Border Patrol custody for more long-term detention. When a youth reaches his 18th birthday, as three were reported to have at the coliseum, they go directly into deportation proceedings.
Once reunited, youths still could face deportation with family members in the U.S. illegally, but they can apply for asylum or other ways to stay in the country.
Alycia Castillo, a policy analyst at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said the facility us different from other facilities because its leadership was made up “mostly of social workers and health professionals.”
Beyond the call for more transparency, organizers also said they wanted a stronger partnership with the county, more opportunities for San Antonio residents to volunteer, and more mental health services for the children.