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Children's detention facilities are overcrowded on the border. Could Austin be home to the next temporary shelter?
(Jaime Rodriguez Sr./U.S. Customers and Border Protection Office of Public Affairs)

A temporary detention facility for migrant children in Donna, Texas, on March 17. The photo was released by the Biden administration last week.

An overcrowded detention facility for migrant children in Donna, Texas, along the U.S.-Mexico border has made headlines this week. The 250-person capacity shelter is run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and currently housing more than 4,100 people, many of whom are unaccompanied minors.

To address the issue, the Biden administration has established temporary shelters for migrant children at a Dallas convention center, the San Antonio expo center and a former oil camp in Midland. So some may wonder: Is Austin next?

Local immigration attorneys believe it is unlikely that a temporary shelter will be established in Austin as they have been in other Texas cities. Justin Estep, director of immigration legal services at Catholic Charities of Central Texas, said the temporary shelters are being established in cities near immigration courts. "As far as unaccompanied minors go they are probably going to end up mostly in San Antonio, Dallas and maybe Houston as time goes on," he told Austonia.

Austin does not have an immigration court; the closest one is in San Antonio. Additionally, a city spokesperson said Austin has not entered into any contracts for a shelter, despite recently clearing out the Austin Convention Center as an alternate care site for COVID patients.

But this isn't to say that migrants won't settle in the Central Texas region once they are released from custody, as U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, suggested at a press conference earlier this month.

Although it seems unlikely that the downtown convention center will be converted to a temporary shelter for migrant children, local nonprofits do anticipate that some of the children being detained along the border may be released to relatives in Central Texas.

Catholic Charities expects to see an increase in demand for immigrant legal services related to these juvenile cases as well as to the ongoing rollback of Trump administration immigration policies, which deterred asylum seekers, DACA recipients and others from applying for immigration status. "We are prepared, and we are opening capacity," Estep said.

Any increase will likely be modest. Robert Painter, managing attorney for American Gateways, which provides immigrant legal services to low-income residents in Austin and San Antonio, said unaccompanied minors who cross the U.S.-Mexico border likely have parents or other relatives they are planning to meet. "Traditionally we don't see a huge influx just because the numbers are spread out across the country," he said.

The reasons for the overcrowding

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and other Republican politicians have referred to overcrowded detention facilities as a crisis and the result of a surge in migration across the border. "This isn't some chaotic, apocalyptic situation down there," Painter said. "Calling it is a surge is political, not factual."

Overcrowding is a result of multiple factors, Estep said. When the Biden administration took office, it began rolling back the Trump administration's immigration policies on day one. As a result, many asylum seekers who were previously prevented from entering the U.S. because of that administration's "Remain in Mexico" and family-separation policies, for example, are now able to do so, leading to an expected backlog. It is also common for there to be an increase in migration when a new president takes office. "Migrants think they'll get a better deal," he added.

In addition to other factors, including recent hurricanes and ongoing civil strife in some Central American countries, there is also a seasonal component. "Typically this is the time of year that migration increases," Estep said.

Although Estep and Painter believe the Biden administration could have done more to increase detention capacity along the border since taking office on Jan. 20, they also acknowledge that the dismantling of the immigration system under Trump has compromised the current administration's response. "There was no infrastructure to get these kids from (Customs and Border Protection, which processes migrants detained by border patrol) to (Office of Refugee Resettlement) facilities," Estep said.

Painter hopes the Biden administration is working hard to reconnect migrant children to their families in the U.S. But this process is made more difficult by logistical challenges, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and some parents' fear of dealing with the U.S. government given the last administration's anti-immigrant stance. "There's been some damage done," he said.


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