Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
“There comes a time when Americans, when Houstonians, when Texans have to say to those higher than ourselves: This is wrong. This is just wrong.”
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said he would do everything in his power to avoid becoming an “enabler” of a new migrant detention center slotted to open in his city.
In remarks Tuesday during which he declared his strong moral opposition to a federal policy of separating migrant children from their parents, Turner suggested state and local permitting mechanisms could stall or thwart the facility’s operation. He urged the operators of the facility to “reconsider” their role.
“There comes a time when Americans, when Houstonians, when Texans have to say to those higher than ourselves: This is wrong,” he said in a press conference. “This is just wrong.”
Between May 5 and June 9, the federal government has reportedly separated 2,342 migrant children from their parents, following the Department of Justice’s “zero tolerance” policy, through which the government seeks to detain and criminally prosecuted all adult migrants crossing the border without papers—including those who are seeking asylum.
Many of the kids separated in this process have been housed at facilities meant to be temporary, until the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) finds them a sponsor family. In recent weeks, the human impact of that practice has come into vivid relief: stories about how traumatized children tucking drawings of their family under their pillows; audio recordings of kids wailing for their moms and dads, pleading with officers to call their relatives; reports from these facilities of children sleeping in giant cages some have likened to “dog kennels.”
In May, the Houston area was home to eleven shelters detaining 955 unaccompanied minor children, according to the Texas Tribune. The new one, an unused warehouse in east downtown, is reportedly going to be used as a shelter for children separated through the new “zero tolerance” policy. In what Turner described as irony, he said he intended to site a long-term homeless operation at the facility, which has previously been used to house people displaced by Hurricane Katrina and the homeless. It was intended to be a site for not just housing, but the delivery of free meals and behavioral health services in a county-city collaboration.
“We thought it would be the best way of reducing the homeless population and bringing them together,” Turner said.
Turner said the city was not informed that the facility was instead slated to house migrant kids, and only found out about the new potential tenants once reporters and activists got wind and sounded alarm. Southwest Key Programs, the company contracting with the federal government to operate their other child detention centers in South Texas, would also be in charge of the planned one in Houston. On Tuesday, Mayor Turner met with HHS and Southwest Key representatives to confirm this news—and express his disapproval.
“They did say they will provide compassionate care—and let me just say, I do not question their intent,” Turner said. “But I do not support this facility being used for this purpose.”
Turner pleaded with the building owner and contractor to reconsider. “I do believe that as a result of the conversation we had today that they are taking a second look at which direction they want to proceed,” Turner later added.
And he pointed out the many pending steps in the city’s domain before the facility is cleared for business: the fire department’s inspection, the health department’s food and shelter permit, for example. He also noted that the state has not yet licensed the facility, either—and implored it not to do so.
“I do not want to be an enabler in this process. I do not want the city to participate in this process,” he said. “I don’t want our facilities and property owners to participate in this process.”
Asked if there was any realistic way he could stop the facility from opening, Turner stated again that the fire department has not yet approved the facility, adding that its chief is with him 24/7. “So I don’t plan to get over there right now,” he said, hinting at how he might slow-walk that approval. With regard to the health department’s shelter approval, he said the city wants to be “meticulous” in evaluating the facility, given that it would be used for children.
“I don’t want anyone to criticize me for moving too quickly or in haste because others may have moved in haste on this policy so we’re going to take the necessary time to make sure that we are prudent, that we are efficient, and we take every conceivable step that is in the best interest of the kids in this facility,” he said.
On June 21, mayors around the U.S. plan to descend on Tornillo, Texas, to protest the federal government’s child separation policy, following a resolution they passed urging the Trump administration Congress to do the same at a recent U.S. Conference of Mayors gathering. In addition, the mayors are putting together a list of steps they can take in their backyards in the coming days, after surveying the situation near the Southern border.
”We are assessing what local tools we have in our toolbox of practical things we can do,” said Mayor Steve Benjamin, of Columbia, South Carolina, and president of the Conference. “Is it possible we can set up a tracking system so the children could find out if and when their parents are deported? Can we arrange for on-site counselors and childcare workers? Can we help fund immigration lawyers for parents and children, so they have access to counsel?”
It remains to be seen how far these policies go, but at least for now, mayors are using some strong words to galvanize local support.
“The day that we as Americans sanitize or anesthetize ourselves to behaviors and actions and policies is the day that we are all in trouble. So let’s be very careful that we not say we will leave it to the policymakers to change the policy,” Houston Mayor Turner said.
“We are the policymakers. We are the people.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the name of the town mayors are visiting on June 21. It is Tornillo.