Around 1:30 a.m. Tuesday morning, dozens of unaccompanied migrant boys disembarked from buses and were ushered into the Freeman Coliseum.
The county-owned facility next to the AT&T Center will serve as an emergency shelter for unaccompanied migrant minors for the next 60 days. Bexar County and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) signed an agreement Friday to house up to 2,400 youths at the coliseum until May 30, though either party has the ability to leave the agreement with seven days of notice. There are currently about 500 boys from ages 13 to 17 staying in the coliseum, which has been equipped with cots, dining facilities, and portable bathrooms.
The southern border that the United States shares with Mexico is experiencing an influx of unaccompanied migrant minors seeking asylum. According to CBS News, border officials will likely take in more than 16,000 minors in March, which would be a record amount. That increase pushed the federal government to open emergency shelters throughout the United States to house them, including the Freeman Coliseum and Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.
U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-San Antonio) on Tuesday joined Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, Bexar County Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores (Pct. 3), and Mayor Ron Nirenberg for a tour of the coliseum. They were able to meet some of the boys staying there and see the facilities themselves.
“We found that although they’re in very spartan conditions, as you would expect in an emergency shelter, that they are being treated [humanely],” Castro said in a news conference Tuesday.
The kids have already set up a soccer field, and Wolff joked that some of them were good enough to be signed onto the San Antonio Football Club, the professional team owned by Spurs Sports & Entertainment
“They’re getting some exercise, they’re able to get out there,” Wolff said. “Three hot meals a day, we’re doing everything we can to make sure we’re taking care of these kids in a safe environment.”
More will continue to arrive in San Antonio over the next couple of days, according to Wolff. Most of the ones currently at the coliseum were bused over from El Paso, and all seem to be from Central America, Castro said. The coliseum will only house teen boys.
Though the situation is “not ideal,” Castro said housing migrant kids at a “safe, sanitary” temporary shelter like the coliseum beats keeping them at the border where they first surrendered to U.S. Customs and Border Protection [CBP] agents.
“I believe, based on what I’ve seen in my experience, that the CBP processing centers are where people are the most vulnerable – most vulnerable to contract the disease, most vulnerable to being ignored because Border Patrol is overwhelmed in those facilities, more than any other place in this chain,” Castro said. “So I’m glad that, even though the conditions are spartan here, that they’re here and no longer at the CBP processing centers.”
Some of the youth housed at the coliseum have tested positive for the coronavirus, Castro said, but they are being housed in a separate area from the rest of the group. He did not know how many tested positive.
Officials emphasized that access into and out of Freeman Coliseum grounds is being tightly controlled by federal officials, and all coronavirus protocols are being followed. Masks are required at all times inside, for one, and staff is ensuring that kids stay socially distanced, Wolff said.
“I want to make this abundantly clear: Nobody comes off of this facility, or goes on to the facility, except through federal custody, and they have the strictest COVID protocols in there,” Nirenberg said. “There’s no touching. Everybody’s [got] PPE. Everything in there is as tight a control of health impacts as you can have in a facility.”
HHS is paying Bexar County rent to use the Freeman Coliseum and will reimburse any expenses that the County may incur while the facility is being used as an emergency shelter for unaccompanied migrant minors. HHS will also provide staff for the coliseum, although the City of San Antonio has provided 40 Head Start employees to help on a temporary basis, Nirenberg said.
Catholic Charities is helping HHS coordinate volunteers to staff the coliseum, said Tara Ford, the nonprofit’s marketing communications director. So far, hundreds of San Antonians have already expressed interest in volunteering at the coliseum but still have to undergo background checks.
“That’s always a great feeling for us, when we know that our community is going to come out and support whatever the need is,” Ford said.
People interested in volunteering can sign up here. Catholic Charities then will conduct a background check within a few days, and then those volunteers will be ready to start working four-hour shifts at the coliseum, Ford said. There is also a physical donation drop-off for supplies at Catholic Charities until Thursday from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. People who are interested in donating can do so through the Catholic Charities’ Amazon wishlist or by donating money here.