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Families Divided

A facility to house immigrant children is planned for Houston. City officials don’t want it.

State Sen. Sylvia Garcia referred to the warehouse — which most recently housed families displaced by Hurricane Harvey — as a planned "baby jail."

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in his office in City Hall on Sept. 25, 2017.

Families Divided

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A facility to house undocumented children is planned for downtown Houston, but city officials don’t want it there.

Southwest Key Programs, the private contractor operating a converted Walmart in Brownsville as a shelter for nearly 1,500 children, has leased a Houston warehouse that in the past housed women and families displaced by Hurricane Harvey, the Houston Chronicle reported. Advocates who work with immigrant minors told the Chronicle that the facility would house “tender age” children younger than 12 as well as pregnant and nursing teenagers. Nearly all of them would be without their parents.

The federal government is searching for new places to house immigrant children as the number of undocumented minors in federal custody has swelled. In April, the Department of Justice announced a “zero tolerance” policy to criminally prosecute all immigrants who enter the country outside a legal port of entry. As a result, thousands of children have been separated from their parents, since parents and children must be split up if the parents are sent to jail.

But before it can begin housing migrant minors, the Houston facility would have to be licensed by the state and approved by various local entities. Houston officials are working to ensure that doesn’t happen.

At a press conference Tuesday, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner urged the state not to license the facility, called on Southwest Key itself “to reconsider” its plans to locate in Houston and suggested that the city may also slow-walk the permitting process for the facility. Southwest Key is “taking a look at it,” he said on Twitter.

“I do not want to be an enabler in this process. I do not want the city to participate in this process,” Turner said at a press conference Tuesday, surrounded by a host of religious leaders. “The health department has yet to provide a food permit or shelter permit. … If we don’t speak, if we don’t say no, then these types of policies will continue.”

Asked what power the city would have to delay or prevent the permitting from moving forward, Turner said city officials would “take the time to do our job.”

“If any of these facilities require them coming to the city of Houston, we will be methodical in our approach,” Turner said.

Turner was joined by state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, a Houston Democrat likely on her way to U.S. Congress in the fall, and several area religious leaders, who cast the debate over family separations at the border as a moral one.

“I too do not want to be an enabler,” Garcia said. “We stand here in opposition to this proposed baby jail near downtown.”

Hundreds gathered in the Houston rain Sunday night to protest the plans, carrying signs like “Families Belong Together.”

Disclosure: Jeff Eller, a communications adviser to Southwest Key, is a donor to and former board member of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here

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