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UPDATE: Gov. Abbott Asks VP Harris To Shut Down Federal Facility For Migrant Children at Freeman Coliseum In San Antonio

 Gov. Greg Abbott, center, at a press conference at Bexar County's Freeman Coliseum.
Dominic Anthony Walsh
Texas Public Radio
Gov. Greg Abbott, center, at a press conference at Bexar County's Freeman Coliseum.

This story was originally published on April 8.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has followed up his accusations of "abuse and neglect" at an emergency intake site for migrant teens at the Freeman Coliseum in a letter to Vice President Kamala Harris, who is serving as border czar in response to an increase in immigration.

The letter calls for migrant teens to be moved out of the site, and details tips received by the state that they were not eating and lacked supervision in showers and overnight. It also summarizes concerns that “there is sexual acting out between children” and that gay teens are bullied.

In a statement released after Abbott made his letter public on Friday, the federal Department of Health and Human Services, which manages the facility, said it will “continue investigating any incidents affecting children’s health” and would take proper measures.

Abbott first leveled the serious allegations in a Wednesday-evening press conference. It marks an elevation in the governor’s public campaign against the Biden administration’s border policy.

Abbott has repeatedly criticized the administration’s decision to allow unaccompanied children into the country, calling it “open border policies” — even though families and adults are still turned away, in violation of federal and international asylum law.

There were 1,645 children staying at the San Antonio Emergency Intake Shelter as of April 7, according to HHS.

In a hasty press conference on Wednesday, Abbott said state agencies received complaints about sexual abuse, lack of food, lack of supervision and improper COVID-19 protocols at the site operated by HHS under a contract with Bexar County. He said the people who made the allegations are remaining anonymous.

“To end this abuse, the Biden administration must immediately shut down this facility,” Abbott added.

Gov. Greg Abbott speaks at a press conference outside Bexar County's Freeman Coliseum. He alleges child abuse is occurring inside the emergency care facility for unaccompanied migrant children.
Dominic Anthony Walsh
Texas Public Radio
Gov. Greg Abbott speaks at a press conference outside Bexar County's Freeman Coliseum. He alleges child abuse is occurring inside the emergency care facility for unaccompanied migrant children.

According to the Associated Press, Texas child welfare officials said they received three reports alleging “abuse and neglect” and the state is investigating. Abbott said the claims were reported to two different state agencies.

“I don’t have their names, and I don’t know if their names were disclosed,” Abbott said during the press conference. “I will say this, however, it is my understanding the allegations come from more than one person who has been in this facility.”

He said they didn’t know how many children were reported to be abused but were “concerned it could be more than one.”

If true, this wouldn’t be the first time a migrant child was abused in federal custody, but it is the first time state officials are investigating these claims at an emergency facility for unaccompanied children who cross the Mexico-Texas border.

When asked why he’s holding a press conference about the allegations now, Abbott said, “This is the first allegation of abuse received by a Texas State agency — that I'm aware of — during the course of this episode of children coming across the border.”

The governor previously requested access to federal facilities in Texas, so that state law enforcement could interview detained children about how they got to the border.

Precinct 1 Bexar County Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores toured the facility with Abbott after his press conference. She told the AP she wishes the governor “had done his tour before the press conference when he politicized children.”

She added that children are placed in "pods," separated if positive for COVID-19, and are fed three meals a day.

Former San Antonio mayor and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro also criticized Abbott for announcing these allegations before conducting investigations into the complaints.

“If he has reason to believe that there is mistreatment what he should do is turn that information over to federal authorities who are charged with investigating these things so that they can be addressed. Instead of that, he held a dramatic press conference at the Freeman Coliseum and has said the state government, that does not have purview over these issues… is going to do an investigation,” said Castro.

Officials with HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) said they don’t discuss individual cases regarding unaccompanied children.

“ORR has a zero-tolerance policy for all forms of sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and inappropriate sexual behavior at all UC (unaccompanied children) care provider facilities and acts quickly to address any alleged violations of policy, including initiating employee disciplinary action, termination, or reporting to appropriate investigative entities, such as law enforcement agencies and relevant licensing bodies. We will not comment further on the specifics of the referenced cases,” a statement said.

Representatives with RAICES — a non-profit legal service that focuses on immigration — said they don’t have any information on the facility and can’t comment on the issues the governor raised.

“Despite earlier reports that RAICES provides services at the Freeman Coliseum in Bexar County, TX, our organization has not been contacted to provide the legal services there that we have provided in similar locations, including Lackland Air Force Base, Fort Bliss, Tornillo and Carrizo Springs,” said Jonathan Ryan, CEO at RAICES, in a statement.

“We do want to make it clear that our priority is the well-being of the children, and because of that, we have joined other organizations in San Antonio calling for more oversight on these children detention facilities. That demand stands.”

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Dominic Anthony Walsh can be reached at Dominic@TPR.org and on Twitter at @_DominicAnthony
María Méndez can be reached at maría@tpr.org or on Twitter at @anxious_maria
Bri Kirkham can be reached at bri@tpr.org or on Twitter at @BriKirk