HOUSTON — Nearly 16,000 immigrant children are currently in federal custody, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Each child illegally crossed into the U.S. without a parent or legal guardian, forcing the child into U.S. custody.
The federal department which manages the Office of Refugee Resettlement opened an emergency intake site in north Houston on April 1 in an effort to ease overcrowded conditions at the border in the Rio Grande Valley.
The Houston site, which the federal government is paying the National Association of Christian Churches to run, can house up to 500 children. HHS reports the NACC site is approved to house girls between the ages of 13 years old and 17 years old.
During a press conference Wednesday, U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, who’s toured the north Houston site at least twice since it opened last week, confirmed the NACC site is now at capacity. A person with HHS confirmed to CBS News at least one child has been released from federal custody in Houston and reunited with relatives here in the United States.
“We don’t want these centers to be permanent sites,” said Cesar Espinoza, executive director of FIEL, Houston’s largest immigrant right’s group.
Espinoza continues to work at opening a line of communication with the federal government and the NACC.
“Our hope is that these centers will take the offers of organizations like FIEL who have ties to the community who can get them a lot of direct access to a lot of these families without them having to go through a lot of red tape," he said.
The process to unite children with relatives takes time. The person sponsoring the child while in the U.S. must complete an application, a background check and a walkthrough of their home by federal workers. Sponsors can be a parent or relative in the U.S. or a stranger approved by the federal government to care for the child as the child’s case moves through immigration courts.
According to data on the HHS website, from Oct. 1, 2020 to Feb. 28, 2021, ORR released 10,596 immigrant children to a sponsor. Of those 10,596 children released, 1,460 of them were released to sponsors in Texas, with 676 sponsors living in Harris County.
“There are a number of sites like this in Texas,” Rep. Jackson Lee said.
The congresswoman has toured the emergency intake site in north Houston at least twice since it opened last week. Of the room and board conditions for the hundreds of teen girls, Rep. Jackson Lee said, “they are well taken care of. They have warm beds. The last time I saw, they were eating good food, and they were smiling.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that as of February 2021, the average time for an immigrant child to be in federal custody is 37 days.
About the care the children are receiving at the temporary center, Rep. Jackson Lee said, “I’m grateful that they’re safe. They’re warm, and that there’s an opportunity for them to process through our immigration system.”