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‘Children Should Not Be Politicized’: Bexar County Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores Discusses Tour With Governor At Migrant Facility

The grounds of Bexar County's Freeman Coliseum
Bexar County/Courtesy Photo
The grounds of Bexar County's Freeman Coliseum

Gov. Greg Abbott announced anonymous complaints of “abuse and neglect” at an emergency facility set up by the Biden administration at the Freeman Coliseum in San Antonio for migrant teens arriving at the border without their parents.

Bexar County Precinct One Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores, who has volunteered at the facility, held a press conference shortly after Abbott’s Wednesday announcement and toured the facility with the governor. TPR News’s Maria Mendez spoke with her on Thursday about the tour.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Maria Mendez: So, I heard you toured the facility with Gov. Greg Abbott because it seems like he hadn’t actually toured the facility before his press conference and announcement that he would be investigating it for complaints of abuse and neglect. Can you tell me what that was like and how that came about?

Rebeca Clay-Flores: So knowing his politics, I didn't think I was going to be anything good, though I hadn't heard any of the accusations that he had said. And so he did his press conference. And then out of respect, we allowed him to leave. And then I wanted to before the cameras, and I said my peace, my experience on several tours as an elected official, Bexar County commissioner, but also my experience as a volunteer. … So anyway, he ended up touring, and so because I already had my ID and background check, all I had to do was get my COVID test. … And then we both passed our COVID test and went into the tour. And so I went in right with him. He was very gracious during the tour, he asked a lot of questions, he had opportunities to speak to the medical staff. … (He also asked) about intake, about COVID, how the kids are separated, if they're found to have COVID that they are tested before they come to the facility. … And when he passed by where all the children, specifically boys from 13 to 17 were … by all their cots set up six feet apart … the boys stood up and gave him a standing ovation.

Mendez: So they knew who he was?

Clay-Flores: You know, I mean these are children from other countries, but apparently someone told them ‘it's the governor of Texas.’ So, apparently they started clapping for him.

Mendez: And did the governor end up saying anything more regarding some of the allegations that he made?

Clay-Flores: Not that I heard. He asked a lot of questions ... like,“Who went to our facility? Where were the kids kept? How did they do this? When did they eat?” Passed by the dining hall. I didn't see him, I didn't hear any specific questions specifically about what about this accusation, this accusation. He talked more about, you know, a lot of questions: “How are the kids unified? How long is the contract for? What happens if when it's time to leave (and) they can't find, they can’t be reunited with their families,” etc. And then afterwards, he did not give another press conference, but I did.

Mendez: There are safety measures, like you mentioned -- supervision and background checks for staff there?

Clay-Flores: Yeah, you can't enter without a background check, and then there's an ID. You can't even get into the parking. …(There’s the) federal police there, who they've contracted with, our federal security. So, you have to show your ID just to get into the parking of the premises of the Freeman Coliseum, and then there's another security to park where all the volunteers park. They have to park there and then walk through, and then you have to go in and get your COVID test and show your ID and all that stuff. There are several measures before you actually get to the building where the children are housed.

Mendez: Can you tell me a little bit more about what you've seen at the facility as a volunteer, and what type of work you’ve done as a volunteer?

Clay-Flores: On my own time, as a volunteer, with my church Seventh Day Adventist, a small group has gone … to play the guitar and teach them some songs and to share a Bible story and to pray. And the whole point is just to encourage them, remind them that God has a plan for them, and for them to stay focused, and do what they've come to this country to do, which is, namely, study hard, work hard, learn English, and stick to their goals. We just start kind of playing a song, and the kids who are interested, they come. Other kids … continue to play soccer or do what they're doing. So it's for those kids who kind of need that encouragement and need to be reminded that God has a plan for now.

Mendez: And I think you've talked about in your press conference about the fact that the children are fed snacks, in addition to three meals, and that they're placed in COVID pods. Could you talk a little bit more about that?

Clay-Flores: So not COVID pods. All the children are placed on what they're calling pods to kind of divide the kids up into 30. Even though it's huge, imagine a huge open gymnasium or arena where the cots are, but that's for assignment purposes. So whether they assign … however many adults they assign that they know they're responsible for those 30 kids. The COVID kids, if they test positive, they are moved to a totally different building. It's on the same property, but a totally different facility. And because of the age of the children, fortunately, most of them are asymptomatic, but nonetheless, because they test positive, they are kept in a totally different area for their recreation, for their food, sleeping quarters, everything until their quarantine time ends. And, of course, they are … brought back to the general population, but they are (in a) totally separate area. And the federal government who has a contract have contracted with three local catering companies with very different foods to satisfy the various palates of the children. And they are contracted to have three meals a day, plus snacks. And what I was saying in the press conference, that during my volunteer time when I have more time to talk to the kids, we were even joking about them not gaining weight while they were here.

Mendez: And in your conversations with kids, what have they told you about where they come from or what they’re looking for?

Clay-Flores: You know, some of their stories are really emotional, so I've tried to kind of stay away from various kinds of personal stuff like that. But just in general, I've asked them, “How are they treating you here? How's the food, is the food good?’” And … they were like, “Yes, so it's good.’ The last kind of little group, Bible story that we share with them, we had a prayer. There's a group of about four boys on their own, and they kneeled, and then, after the prayer, they were crying. And I asked, you know, “I hope this was encouraging for you.” And they were like, “Yes, I am encouraged. And I know God has a plan for me.” Because you have to understand ... no child is going to choose to make such a treacherous trip through Mexico (or) whatever other country they've traveled through. They are fleeing dire situations, and they're coming here out of desperate need.

Mendez: Lastly, what do you think should be the takeaway for people who are seeing this news?

Clay-Flores: That with any child, there's delicate situations, and if there's an accusation, then of course, officials have the responsibility to investigate. But investigations need to be done. And before you go to the media, hurl lots of accusations, you need to have evidence and proof. Investigations should have already been completed when you're dealing with children. It's not just an accusation. Children should not be politicized and used as political pawns.

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María Méndez can be reached at maría@tpr.org or on Twitter at @anxious_maria