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Texas Lawmakers Call Gov. Abbott’s Migrant Children Sexual Assault Claim A ‘Political Bomb’

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Joey Palacios / Texas Public Radio
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Democratic lawmakers State Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins (right) and Congressman Joaquin Castro appeared at Freeman Coliseum on Friday and asked Gov. Greg Abbott to investigate the claims of sexual assault.

Lawmakers in Texas called on Friday for a full investigation into Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s claims migrant children were sexually assaulted at the Freeman Coliseum emergency intake shelter. They were also concerned about the lack of evidence for such claims.

A delegation of Democratic state legislators from San Antonio, Austin and Houston joined Congressman Joaquin Castro on a tour of Freeman Coliseum Friday afternoon.

Abbott sent a letter to Vice President Kamala Harris asking for the facility to be closed, and he repeated his sexual assault claims. A memo attached to the letter contained three anonymous reports that were sent to state agencies. The reports alleged neglect, a lack of food, and ‘sexual acting out’ by the children. But none of the reports had any direct claims of sexual assault.

On their tour, the lawmakers said they did not see anything that resembled what Abbott alleged. Nevertheless, State Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins said lawmakers were concerned about what’s happening at the site.

“We know that there’s a better place for children. We know that, and we agree with that. What I saw was white (bed) sheets, I saw blankets, I saw pillows, I saw children who were engaged (in activities). I saw food, I saw dedicated staff, and I’m pleased at what I saw, but I also know we have a lot of work to do to connect these children with their families, and that should be our number one priority,” she said.

As of Friday, the facility had 1,900 children -- all boys aged 13-17 -- mostly from countries like El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. It can shelter up to 2,400 migrant children — who arrived at the border without their parents — while the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement locates family members in the U.S.

The governor made his claims on Wednesday afternoon, a little less than a week after the emergency intake site opened.

Castro said the governor’s intent was to drop a political bomb.

“The governor doesn’t care about these kids. The governor wants to send all these kids back to the dangerous place that they came from so it’s not like the governor has a big heart, right? But whatever evidence the governor has, the governor should put forward,” Castro said.

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer accused the governor of engaging in what called ‘piñata politics.’

“The children in this facility are not anybody’s political piñata for anybody to swing a stick at them and attack them and attack their situation. These children are not here by their choice. They did not volunteer to be in this predicament,” Martinez Fischer said.

Abbott’s letter to Harris asked the Biden administration to close the shelter and move the children to other federally run facilities.

“The State of Texas previously warned about overcrowded conditions at these facilities, and now those conditions have lead to allegations of child abuse and neglect. Our repeated warnings and questions have gone ignored by President Biden, yourself, and Department of Homeland Security Mayorkas,” he said in the letter.

The three claims included in a memo attached to the letter were reported to the Texas Department of Family Protective Services and Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

One report made on April 6 claimed the children engaged in “sexual behavior in the showers.” It also expressed concerns about the staff to children ratio and the lack of first aid or CPR certifications for staff.

A second report that same day claimed there was no supervision overnight and that there was "sexual acting out" between the children, and children who are homosexual may be bullied. A third report filed on April 7 repeated claims made in the first two reports.

Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said the Biden administration takes the safety and well being of children in its care very seriously.

“His claims will be looked into and investigated by the Department of Health and Human Services. Currently, we have no basis for his claim to shut down the San Antonio Freeman Coliseum as an intake site,” she said.

Under a contract between Bexar County and HHS, the facility will be open up to 60 days unless the contract is rescinded by either party or extended.

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