(The Center Square) – As the Texas House meets to consider border security bills that failed to pass in the regular and previous special legislative sessions, a border security group is calling on Gov. Greg Abbott and lawmakers to include bipartisan measures to ensure protections for children.
“The Texas legislature is already leading on many issues related to border security,” Sheena Rodriguez, the founder and leader of Alliance for a Safe Texas, told The Center Square. “Now it has the opportunity to lead not just for Texas but for all states by establishing regulatory oversight of facilities housing children. Texas must act now especially as the Biden administration is attempting to codify failed policies that are enabling abuse of children.”
Rodriguez is referring to a U.S. Health & Human Services Department proposed rule change to expand the use of waivers for safety requirements due to an “influx” of children crossing into the U.S. at the southwest border, which the Alliance opposes.
“What Americans may not realize,” she said, “is the facilities housing unaccompanied minors (UACs) run by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) receiving multimillion dollar contracts with the federal government are also receiving contracts from state governments, including Texas, to house American foster care children.”
In a new Alliance report published Tuesday, Rodriguez outlines the need for regulatory reform at the state level. The report highlights years of allegations of abuse at several HHS-contracted facilities, cites examples of ongoing deficiencies within theOffice of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), and examples of the impact to local Texas communities.
“Texans may also not realize that the majority of HHS-contracted facilities housing unaccompanied minors are in Texas,” Rodriguez told The Center Square.
At least 52 were operating statewide in Texas in 2020, according to a 2020 GAO report. No other state has nearly the number of facilities or is receiving the volume of UACs than Texas.
From fiscal 2015 to 2023, the largest number of UACs by far – 82,391 – were released into Texas. California received 68,249; Florida, 60,192, The Center Square first reported.
Texas, California and Florida have historically received the most UACs; the number exponentially increases every year.
In fiscal 2015, California received 3,629 UACs, Texas 3,272, and Florida 2,908. By fiscal 2022, all three states received the highest number of UACs in recorded history: Texas (19,071), California (13,730), and Florida (13,195).
As the number of UACs increased, allegations of abuse increased, as did questions about the children’s whereabouts, interaction with American children, and federal and state government oversight. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis called for a grand jury investigation, which concluded ORR was “facilitating the forced migration, sale, and abuse of foreign children. … This process exposes children to horrifying health conditions, constant criminal threat, labor and sex trafficking, robbery, rape and other experiences not done justice by mere words.”
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody called on Congress to investigate, which resulted in hearings, at which Rodriguez testified. UACs have been placed with unrelated individuals and put in situations “where they are subject to abuse, including rape, molestation, and effectively forced to work to pay for their travel to the United States in violation of child labor laws,” Moody said.
In Texas, state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, and state Rep. Stan Kitzman, R-Bellville, introduced several bills to propose a solution, which all received bipartisan support. Kolkhorst filed SB 572 in the regular legislative session, which passed the Senate but not the House. Kitzman introduced HB 5000 in the regular legislative session and HB 162 and HB 163 in the third special legislative session. The bills had bipartisan support but didn’t make it out of the House. Kitzman filed HB 97 in the ongoing fourth special legislative session, which also has bipartisan support.
Newly elected Kitzman has been leading the charge to create a solution after HHS-contracted facilities have impacted his rural district located roughly an hour and a half from Houston. Local officials raised concerns for many reasons, including their proximity to elementary schools.
Of the UACs being released into the U.S., the overwhelming majority are male. Several federal and state lawmakers and others have warned that federal officials aren’t property vetting men claiming to be teenagers who are being released into the country.
Citizens were alarmed after a reported 18-year-old Guatemalan national was enrolled in a Rhode Island high school and solicited money from students and teachers to pay his human smuggler for helping him illegally enter the country. DeSantis demanded answers after an ORR sponsor and Jacksonville father of four was murdered by a reported teenager he welcomed into his home. The teen was actually a 24-year-old Honduran man who illegally entered the U.S., was released into the country and sent to Florida by ORR.
Austin County, Texas, Judge Tim Lapham told state senators earlier this year, “We don’t know who’s in this facility,” referring to an HHS-contracted facility in his rural county. “There’s been no communication with the local government, city or the county. The federal government has thumbed their noses at us, the local governments, on this issue.”
Kitzman’s latest bill expands existing state codes to require background checks and criminal history checks on all personnel, submit compliance and safety inspection and incident reports to local authorities, among many other requirements.
“The current administration is forcing Texas to take extraordinary measures to contend with the vast negative consequences resulting from the unprecedented border crisis,” Kitzman told The Center Square. “One of the many issues impacting my district are concerns of a potential strain on local resources with opening of HHS-contracted facilities housing unaccompanied minors. My district is a rural district with finite resources. The lack of transparency and communication by these facilities also raises concerns for the safety of the minors housed in our district. With the refusal to communicate there is no way to ensure these children are being properly cared for.”
As the Texas legislature continues to debate border security bills, “surely they can agree that implementing safety measures governing facilities housing children in Texas is imperative,” Rodriguez told The Center Square. “Texas children are being put at risk by federal policies and the state must implement reforms to protect all children in its care.”