Houston shelter for migrant girls abruptly closed after HHS staffer suddenly dies

An emergency intake site (EIS) that housed 450 to 500 unaccompanied minors, all-female, abruptly closed Saturday in Houston. This followed an incident Friday night. A “flurry of activity” was seen Saturday as buses arrived and left the shelter with the girls. Boxes and computers were seen being carried out by workers. An adult staffer from HHS suddenly died Friday night at the shelter.

Authorities cite privacy policies and declined to comment on the staffer’s death. The transfer of the girls is not related to the death, authorities say. The agency isn’t giving details on why the girls are being moved.

A brief statement was released by HHS.

“Today, HHS announced that all of the children in HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) care at the Emergency Intake Site (EIS) for Unaccompanied Children at the National Association of Christian Churches site in Houston, Texas (NACC Houston) will be immediately unified with sponsors or transferred to an appropriate ORR facility,” agency officials said in a statement released Saturday.

The question is, why? Coming immediately after a sudden death on the premises sure looks suspicious. The girls arrived only two weeks ago. The National Association of Christian Churches (NACC) partnered with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Refugee Resettlement to open the facility to ease the horrendous situation of overcrowding on the southern border. An HHS official reported that 130 of the 450 girls at the site already have plans to be united with a sponsor. The others are being moved to different facilities.

Familias Inmigrantes y Estudiantes en la Lucha (FIEL), an “immigrant-led civil rights organization”, according to its Twitter bio, released a video of some activity outside the facility on Friday night. The video is narrated by a Spanish speaker but you can see the flashing lights of emergency vehicles and movement.

Executive director of FIEL, Ceaser Espinosa, said the conditions inside the warehouse were ‘inappropriate for anyone, especially young girls’, who range in age from 13-17 years old. He added that employees of the facility would only let the teens get out of their cots a few times a day to shower and use the restroom.

Fiel member Alan Cisnero said while he was out with his family on Friday night, he noticed a large amount of first responders arriving to the facility. He said he then proceeded to see what the issue was, however officials told him they couldn’t share much information regarding who was involved in the incident.

Espinosa added that the facility actually had 500 girls on roster at the time of Friday night’s incident, meaning they were right at capacity. Due to the amount of girls, he said they were unable to properly social distance inside the warehouse.

“The NACC Houston EIS and other Emergency Intake Sites are intended for use as a temporary measure,” DHS officials said.

The reason for the abrupt clearing out of the facility has still not been given. Maybe it is because the facility wasn’t suited for the teenage girls. HHS cited “continuity of care under conditions that meet our strict standards of care in ORR state-licensed shelters, the Carrizo Springs Influx Care Facility or Emergency Intake Sites where beds have become available.”

A Congressional Democrat from Houston describes the situation as a good one – happy that the facility is “no longer needed” yet that sounds like a strange way to describe it.

The pastor who heads the National Association of Christian Churches in Houston calls it a “sudden and unjustified” removal, and likens it to a drug raid. He said the government “begged” him to take the girls then refused to reimburse for expenses, telling him to contact attorneys to help him with his claims. He also said he was first told he would receive boys but then discovered the teens were girls.

José Ortega, founder and president of the National Association of Christian Churches, the disaster-relief agency based in Houston that was awarded a federal contract to house unaccompanied minors who had been detained at the southern border, condemned the Health and Human Services Department.

“I’m a humble pastor that was thrown into this mess without asking for it,” said Ortega, who said that HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra asked him to take the migrant children. After he scrambled to prepare for the boys he was told to expect, he learned he would be getting girls instead, he said. The government sent officials and employees of a contractor that took over the operation. He still had to pay the contractor he’d hired, he said.

A spokesperson for Houston Mayor Turner said that the White House notified the mayor that the facility was no longer needed. It looks like the facility is no longer needed because Ortega invited journalists in to cover the story of the facility and because the federal government was not honoring its contract with him and reimbursing him for expenses.

Ortega accused federal authorities of threatening to arrest an organization board member for letting journalists into the facility.

He told the Chronicle in a later interview that he agreed to take on the task of setting up a shelter at the urging of HHS but claimed that he was not reimbursed for expenses he incurred in establishing the center and procuring goods and services for the care of the children.

Ortega said he last talked to Becerra on April 1, “when he again begged me to open up the facility and sign this contract.”

The situation escalated last week, Ortega said, with continued delays from HHS on paying him, until he informed them Friday night that he had retained attorneys.

“I don’t know anything about contracts,” he said. “I’m a pastor. We were not looking for a contract, we were not applying for a contract for us to make money — this was thrown on us.”

Ortega says the girls didn’t want to leave and cried about it as they did. NACC representatives released letters written by the girls that thank the organization for taking care of them.

No good deed goes unpunished, right? What a mess.

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