SAN ANTONIO – Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Thursday, April 8. It will be updated as more information becomes available.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbot on Wednesday called for the closing of San Antonio’s temporary housing for migrant children due to allegations of sexual abuse, understaffing and COVID-related concerns.
During a news conference outside the Freeman Coliseum — which as of Wednesday is housing more than 1,600 teenagers who recently crossed the border without a parent or guardian — Abbott said the allegations are “credible” and at least one complaint was made from someone who was inside the facility.
The governor said the complaints were made to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission and Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
Here’s what we know about the abuse allegations of migrant children temporarily being housed at the Freeman Coliseum:
Abbott called the facility a ‘health and safety nightmare’
The governor did not provide details on the abuse accusations or the tipster but said one of the allegations includes sexual abuse.
Other allegations include improper quarantine protocols for those who tested positive for COVID-19, as well as insufficient staffing and children not eating, he said.
“This facility is a health and safety nightmare,” Abbott said, adding that the facility should be shut down immediately and “the children should be moved to better-staffed and better-secured locations.”
The governor said Texas Rangers would immediately begin investigating the cases. It is unclear how many children were allegedly abused.
Abbott took further aim at President Joe Biden
In recent weeks, Abbott and other Texas Republicans have criticized the Biden administration amid a sharp increase in the number of unaccompanied youths crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
“The Biden administration opened the borders and failed to plan for the influx of unaccompanied children crossing the border, and now we are faced with our worst fears—allegations of child abuse and neglect,” Abbott said. “President Biden’s disastrous decisions caused this crisis, and his administration must act now to protect these children, secure the border, and end this crisis.”
The Freeman Coliseum is being used as a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Emergency Intake Site amid the influx. In the past two months, the HHS has used convention centers, camps for oil field workers, and military bases in the Southwest as temporary housing for migrants. More than 17,000 beds at those facilities have more than doubled the capacity of its longstanding system of permanent facilities, according to the Associated Press.
The Expo Center, located next to the AT&T Center, has an internal potential capacity of 2,100 beds and an external capacity of 300 medical beds.
Upon arrival, the children receive medical screenings and any follow-up care needed for injuries or illnesses they had when they arrived, officials have previously said.
Abbott has asked Vice President Harris to close San Antonio facility
The governor on Friday sent a letter to Vice President Kamala Harris demanding the closure of the Freeman Coliseum as a holding facility, citing allegations of sexual assault, bullying, understaffing and “disregard for COVID-19 protocols within the facility.”
“The State of Texas previously warned about overcrowded conditions at these facilities, and now those conditions have led to allegations of child abuse and neglect,” the letter stated. “Our repeated warnings and questions have gone ignored by President Biden, yourself, and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas. In your role as Border Czar, you have a duty to these children and the American people to act immediately. I implore you to act immediately to protect these children, secure the border, and end this crisis.”
Biden administration says claims will be investigated, but no immediate plans to shut down the site
Following Abbott’s announcement, Ike Hajinazrian, a White House regional spokesperson, released the following statement following the allegations:
“The Biden Administration takes the safety and well-being of children in its care very seriously. Currently, we see no basis for Governor Abbott’s call to shut down the San Antonio Freeman Coliseum as an intake site, however, his claims will be looked into and investigated by the Department of Health and Human Services.”
The governor held his news conference before touring the Freeman Coliseum
Abbott acknowledged that he had not been inside the coliseum before holding his news conference. He toured the facility along with Bexar County Pct. 1 Commissioner Rebecca Clay-Flores after the press briefing.
The AP reported that Abbott asked staff questions that included COVID-19 testing protocols.
Clay-Flores, a Democrat who had previously visited the facility as an elected official and volunteer, said the allegations are “fake news.”
“I wish the governor had done his tour before the press conference when he politicized children,” Clay-Flores said in a news conference.
She said the teenagers are offered three meals and two snacks a day. Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19, she said, is separated from others.
Texas Department of Family and Protective Services said they received 3 reports of neglect, abuse
In a statement, a DFPS spokeswoman confirmed that the agency received three separate allegations of abuse and neglect at the Freeman Coliseum.
“Because this facility is not licensed by the State, we do not have the jurisdiction to investigate, but the information we received has been shared with DPS,” the statement said.
Spokesman Patrick Crimmins told the AP that he did not immediately know if the state had received additional allegations of abuse or neglect at other emergency housing sites in Texas.
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg called allegations ‘disturbing’
In a statement to KSAT, the mayor said a thorough investigation is needed if the allegations are true.
“These allegations about the federal operation are disturbing if true, and a thorough investigation is warranted,” he said.
RAICES has called for more oversight of the children being held at the site
Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) said it will not comment on the allegations of abuse, but will press for more oversight of the children being detained, its CEO Jonathan Ryan said in a news release Thursday morning.
Although RAICES has not been contacted to provide legal services for the teens at the Freeman Coliseum site, Ryan said, its priority is still the well-being of all migrants.
“It is also clear to us that the only reason why Abbott is now acting like he cares about the children in these facilities, is for political reasons,” he said. “Abbott has constantly and historically contributed to the dehumanization and attacks against migrant children and their families. It is because of Texas anti-immigrant laws and policies supported and signed by him, that sponsors and parents of these kids are unable and afraid to go through the process required to reunite with their children and get them out of detention.”
“What the Governor wants is for the Biden administration to stop allowing children to seek home and safety in this country. That is not the solution to the challenge we have in front of us. We must ensure the children are released as soon as possible and be reunited with their families in the U.S.”
Cornyn has requested a federal probe
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn late Wednesday said the allegations of abuse inside a U.S. government facility are “despicable.”
“The HHS Inspector General must fully investigate these allegations and the treatment of children at this facility,” Cornyn, a Republican, said.
His press office said the Senator has recently visited four migrant facilities.
The number of migrants apprehended at the border last month is the highest in 15 years
According to the latest data available from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Border Patrol agents have apprehended more migrants in a single month than they have since 2006.
Border Patrol agents logged 172,331 apprehensions in March along the U.S.-Mexico border — a 71% increase from February. Spring months are generally the highest of the year for crossings.
About 18,890 unaccompanied children were taken into custody. Read more here.