AUSTIN — Escalating his showdown with President Joe Biden, Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday ordered state child-care regulators to yank licenses from facilities that house minors who crossed the state’s southern border without papers and were detained.
Currently, 52 state-licensed general residential operations and child placing agencies in Texas have contracts with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement to care for undocumented immigrant children. ORR contracts with about 200 facilities in 22 states.
Within three months or so, Abbott’s move apparently would force them to stop serving unaccompanied minors because the facilities must have state licenses to qualify for the federal contracts.
The effects are unclear: Nationwide, there are now about 17,000 unaccompanied children, according to data provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. But it’s unclear how many of those children are in state licensed facilities in Texas, as opposed to unlicensed emergency sites such as the one that just closed in Dallas or the site at Fort Bliss Army base in El Paso that can hold up to 10,000 unaccompanied migrant children and teens.
Denying the Biden administration use of the state-licensed shelters could force more of the children to be held at U.S. Customs and Border Protection stations – facilities deemed unsuitable for children.
In his executive order, though, Abbott linked recent increases in immigration to the state’s ongoing capacity crisis in foster care.
“The unabated influx of individuals resulting from federal government policies threatens to negatively impact state-licensed residential facilities, including those that serve Texas children in foster care,” the Republican governor says in the order. In it, he accuses the federal government of “commandeering” state resources to cover for its own flubs.
“There are several counties in Texas, more than a dozen counties in Texas, that requested a gubernatorial disaster declaration for the border,” Abbott told The Dallas Morning News Tuesday. “I declared their disaster declaration.”
Former federal child-welfare official Mark Greenberg, though, said Abbott’s move is likely to shrink already-tight capacity in the nation’s makeshift system for caring for the immigrant children.
“This would be a major setback,” said Greenberg, who was a top official of the Administration for Children and Families, which includes the resettlement agency, during former President Barack Obama’s administration.
“It would be enormously disruptive to the providers who have been providing shelter and services to unaccompanied children in Texas for many years, and have substantial expertise and experience from providing those services.”
Abbott’s order cites his disaster powers – which have caused blowback for Abbott during the COVID-19 crisis of the past 15 months. The order directs state Residential Child Care Regulation officials to suspend two specific state statutes “and all other relevant laws.”
The officials, who work for the state Health and Human Services Commission, should then deny any pending applications for new licenses for facilities sheltering “unlawful immigrants” under a federal contract, Abbott said. Existing licensees that fit that description should be given notice and then 90 days “to wind down,” the order says.
It also directs the Texas Department of Public Safety to enforce all state and federal laws on trespassing, smuggling and human trafficking; tells a jail-standards commission to waive rules to give border counties “flexibility needed to establish adequate alternative detention facilities;” and calls for a state-local effort to protect landowners.
Texas faces a growing crisis because foster care providers are relinquishing contracts with the Department of Family and Protective Services, causing hundreds of children each month to have no suitable placements. They have to be bunked in Child Protective Services offices, hotels or churches, attended overnight by CPS workers.
A bill just passed by the Legislature, which arrived at Abbott’s desk Tuesday, would prohibit the practice. While the state needs placements for the children, it’s unclear whether in-state contractors that in recent years have housed a lot of the immigrant children for the federal government would begin – or resume taking CPS’s kids.
For many years, nonprofit and for-profit entities such as San Antonio-based BCFS, the former Baptist Child & Family Services, have given up their CPS contracts and shifted to the more lucrative contracts offered by the federal refugee-resettlement office. During the coronavirus pandemic, higher costs and staff turnover, along with tougher regulation of foster care providers ordered by a federal judge, have hastened the exodus.
It’s unclear how many licensed general residential operations and child placing agencies in Texas serve both populations — foster children and unaccompanied minors.
Krista Piferrer, a government relations official with the BCFS System, when asked what Abbott’s order would do to the vast nonprofit’s business model, said in an email, “We are working to get a full understanding of this issue and the impact it will have on our operations in Texas.”
Kasey Elchayeb, a spokesperson for Austin-based Southwest Keys, wrote, “Please reach out to ORR. They should have more info on the effects of this declaration.”
Greenberg, the former Obama administration official who’s now a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Migration Policy Institute, said Abbott’s order “would greatly reduce the availability of licensed care for unaccompanied children at a time when more licensed care is needed, not less.”
Also, he said, “It would greatly increase the burdens on the Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for transporting children to shelters.”
In mid-March, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas warned that the Border Patrol would “encounter more individuals” than in the last two decades. The record was 21 years ago in 2000, when 1.6 million immigrants were apprehended.
The overall number of arrivals in March hit about 173,000, and 178,000 in April. But the majority of those migrants were quickly expelled back across the border under Title 42, a Trump-era emergency public-health order designed to fight the spread of the coronavirus. The Biden administration is under pressure from immigrant advocates to end the measure, especially as the pandemic eases. Republicans, though, are likely to pounce on the Biden team for being too lenient if the measure ends.
Already, the Biden administration has allowed unaccompanied migrant minors — and certain other migrants — into the U.S. on humanitarian grounds.
Political writer Gromer Jeffers Jr. contributed to this report.