Children's detention facilities are overcrowded on the border. Could Austin be home to the next temporary shelter?
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.
The journey to cross the southern border is dangerous for all involved. Our communities are responding the best they can, but the men & women on the ground are overwhelmed. I received this photo of 123 migrants apprehended by Border Patrol - who were packed inside a trailer. pic.twitter.com/xg79rJg5Q6
— Rep. Henry Cuellar (@RepCuellar) March 25, 2021
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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A $500 million mixed-use development spanning 1,400 acres is coming to Southeast Austin, near Tesla’s headquarters at Giga Texas.
Plans for the development by Houston-based real estate firm Hines include 2,500 houses along with multi-family and townhomes, and commercial land. Hines is partnering with Trez Capital, Sumitomo Forestry and Texas-based Caravel Ventures.
The development, which is known as Mirador, will be located off the 130 Toll and Highway 71, which the developers say provides easy access to the Circuit of the Americas Formula 1 racetrack and other Austin attractions like restaurants, parks and live music venues.
Hines also boasts amenities like a 60-acre lake, over 600 acres of greenbelt, community parks, trails and a swimming pool.
“As Austin continues to grow into the tech epicenter of Texas, coupled with a supply-constrained market, the demand for new housing is at its highest,” Dustin Davidson, managing director at Hines, said. “Mirador will be critical in providing more options for Austin’s growing population and we are excited to work alongside our partners given they each provide a unique and valued perspective in single-family development.”
The local housing market has been hot in recent years, with home sales accelerating earlier in the pandemic. In July 2021, the Austin metro area hit its pricing peak at $478,000. As Austonia previously reported, the area has been expected to see the Tesla effect, with the new workforce driving up demand for housing and other services.
The single-family houses are expected to be developed over the course of six years, in phases. Construction on the homes is expected to start this year and home sales will begin in 2023.
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Editor's note: This story summarizes Sports Illustrated's story detailing Michael Center's involvement in the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, based on interviews with SI's Jon Wertheim. Additionally, Austonia received comments from Michael Center, included in this story.
Confined to his couch, former Longhorns tennis coach Michael Center praised his players via FaceTime after the program he built produced the Longhorns’ first national championship in 2019—a bittersweet moment as Center faced federal charges as part of the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal.
His name dragged through the mud, Center was fired, arrested by the FBI and sentenced to six months in a Central Texas federal prison after pleading guilty to two charges related to mail fraud. And over a year after his release, Center told Sports Illustrated he doubts he was the only one in burnt orange involved.
When the Varsity Blues scandal broke out to the public in 2019, the investigation was a perfect storm for nationwide attention: Hollywood glamour, blue blood conspiracy and faith in the tried-and-true American education system came to a head as 33 movie stars and other elites were found guilty of paying more than $25 million to pave their children’s way into eight colleges, including the University of Texas.
UT was one of eight schools caught in the college admissions scandal. (Laura Figi/Austonia)
The figure behind Varsity Blues, “college consultant” Rick Singer, would plead guilty to four felony counts for faking SAT scores and bribing coaches at prominent universities for his elite clients—but not before throwing Center under the bus.
Singer's client, private equity executive Chris Schaepe, was looking for a way to bend UT's tight admissions policies for his son, who was seeking a position oddly as a manager on UT’s basketball team. Through a middleman, Singer contacted Center, who eventually agreed.
Schaepe's son hadn't played tennis since his freshman year of high school. It was a detail that Center says passed through plenty of hands before he was admitted, including "academic support staff, the compliance office, the sports supervisor and, ultimately, the athletic director," SI's Jon Wertheim writes.
No one in the entire athletic department, including seven "risk management and compliant services department" employees, was named, implicated or punished. After an internal investigation, Center was the only one named in the Varsity Blues "subterfuge" in a September 2019 UT news release signed by the university president.
He told Austonia he was never contacted by the university during the investigation, and when the NCAA interviewed him for its investigation, he says it cleared him of any violations.
“I almost fell out of my chair,” Center said. “I literally couldn’t breathe. There’s no college coach in America—much less at a state school, much less a coach of a nonrevenue sport—who can admit an athlete without consulting other people in the athletic department. What they were asking people to believe, it’s just impossible.” SI said Center's assertion was backed by multiple UT coaches and administrators at other schools.But why would the Forty Acres be complicit?
Center said UT’s then newly named athletic director Steve Patterson made clear that Center suddenly was responsible for more than building a successful tennis program. He was to be a "fundraiser first and coach second" and he would need to find donors to fund a new tennis facility. Patterson admitted to SI that he wanted his coaches to find donors and said the department was "$15 million in the red" when he started in 2013, though he denies any knowledge of the false tennis recruitment.
Center said he knew he would be "considered a team player" if he let in the son of a Silicon Valley magnate. And sure enough, Schaepe immediately began pulling out his wallet, donating $100,000 to UT tennis and a six-figure check to the school's communication program.
"I never entered this as a way to profit. This was a fundraising mission where I made a terrible mistake at the end,"
Months after Schaepe's son was admitted, Center agreed to meet Singer at the Austin airport and found himself accepting a backpack filled with $60,000 in cash meant for him, personally. He said he immediately knew he had made a mistake. He told SI “I put the money in my basement and gave most of it away.”
“Why did I do it?” Center told Sports Illustrated. "I go to bed and wake up each day asking myself the same question. I had to convince myself that I somehow deserved the money."
Once in court, Center showed texts with UT's compliance official and mentioned Chris Plonsky, a department executive involved in "overseeing men’s tennis, compliance, academic support (which generates letters of intent) and the Longhorn Foundation," according to SI.
“I knew I had to answer for my guilt,” Center said. “But I was like, 'Man, schools are going to get hammered.'"'
INMATE 77806-112 but out on Sunday: Actor Felicity Huffman in prison uniform outside low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin to visit actor husband William H. Macy & their daughter. Huffman admitted to paying $15K to have fixer boost daughter’s SAT score. 📸: @TMZ pic.twitter.com/9jALmqnA0U
— Henry K. Lee (@henrykleeKTVU) October 21, 2019
But Center was the only Longhorn to go down for the crimes. “I was no rogue actor,” Center said. “And this wasn’t my word against their word. There were signatures that went along with it. That’s the system... There wasn’t one point in the process where I thought people wanted to learn the whole truth.”
Back at home in Austin, Center watched as actress Felicity Huffman served just eleven days for her part in the scandal. Some served up to five months; others simply paid a fine, and others, like Singer, await sentencing.
And because the prosecution chose to blame individual coaches, framing schools as victims in the case, universities like UT have received less than a slap on the wrist for their possible involvement.
“I was always taught that actions have consequences,” Center said. “What I’ve come to realize is that, yes, for some people actions absolutely do have consequences. Serious, heavy ones. For others, actions can have no consequences at all.”
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