Dallas ‘decompression center’ can’t become another prison for migrant youth

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The green cots  — 2,300 of them to be exact — are what throw you off when you enter the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas.

The venue usually hosts auto shows or conventions where industry types talk shop. But this March weekend, the cavernous Hall D morphed into a temporary home for thousands of unaccompanied boys from Central America — fresh faces and reminders of generations of failed immigration policy that continues to afflict the lives of migrants in the margins.  

I spent the weekend volunteering at this “decompression center.” It was established after the shelters that normally house unaccompanied children filled to capacity. Volunteer groups such as the Red Cross and government agencies like Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are doing a heroic job managing the hastily assembled site. The facility is currently focused on meeting the kids’ basic needs: showers, food, medical care and clean clothes. The boys are bored, desperate for any distraction to keep their minds off the seemingly interminable wait to be released to sponsors, but at least they are safe. In the meantime, they have push-up contests, draw on their masks and play with the few decks of cards circulating through the facility.

Although the situation at the convention center is adequate, but it, not the border, is the true “crisis” that the federal government must address. These boys should never have needed to make the trip to Dallas. A series of destructive decisions by the Trump administration led us to this humanitarian emergency.

These children in Dallas are from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — all countries long plagued with unimaginable violence and poverty and now they are navigating natural disasters and the global pandemic. Instead of providing assistance, the Trump administration slashed millions of dollars in aid. This left many with no choice but to flee, but in March 2020, President Trump used the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to expel migrants, claiming that doing so was in the “interest of public health.” 

In the final years of the Trump presidency, everyone seeking admission to the U.S. was turned away, many under the Title 42 public health restriction and others pursuant to a range of policies designed to shut out asylum seekers. Thus, when President Biden allowed migrant children to enter the U.S., a massive backlog of desperate kids lay waiting. While HHS-run shelters can typically accommodate variable flows of unaccompanied minors, this surge quickly overwhelmed their capacity.

The situation is dire, but there are four things we as a country can do immediately to address this humanitarian crisis.

First, we must release children from the decompression center as efficiently as possible. Every boy I spoke to last weekend has a family member in the United States that he longs to reunite with. Vetting of these sponsors ensures that kids are released to safe adults, but every effort must be made to expedite the process. The Biden administration should be commended for ceasing HHS’s cooperation with immigration enforcement, which had a chilling effect on undocumented family members coming forward to sponsor children and for allowing shelter operators to pay for sponsors’ transportation costs. But children have been in Dallas since March 17 and as of March 19, according to what officials told me, phone calls to families were sporadic and case managers were not yet on-site to facilitate the reunification process.

Second, care should be taken that this decompression center remains more like a shelter than a prison. I have represented immigrants detained by law enforcement in this country and can safely say that the Dallas Convention Center is not and does not feel like a jail. I saw only two uniformed Homeland Security officers when I was at the facility. But strict rules are already in place, meal and shower times are fixed and the children are monitored at all times. It is not difficult to imagine a path that leads to lockdowns and a more combative, custodial setting, which would be both unlawful and unconscionable. 

Third, sites like the one in Dallas should be temporary solutions. Volunteers are moving mountains to make the convention center as comfortable as possible. They have scrambled to find books, religious leaders to hold Sunday mass and even donated basketball equipment. But the facility does not compare to a licensed shelter that affords privacy, safety and critical services such as mental health counseling. Pop-up decompression centers cannot become the norm.

Finally, we as a country must rediscover our compassion. Pragmatism supports providing aid to our neighbors in Central America; financial support for these countries may stem the tide of migrants. But it is also the right and moral thing to do. We must remember that the children who are at our borders likely would not have made the dangerous journey were it not safer than the perilous risks they fled their homes to escape. We must face this crisis not with finger-pointing or political gamesmanship, but with empathy and love for our neighbors.

Natalie Nanasi is the director of the Judge Elmo B. Hunter Legal Center for Victims of Crimes Against Women and assistant professor of law at the SMU Dallas Dedman School of Law. She researches and writes at the intersection of immigration, gender and feminist legal theory.

Tags Biden immigration policy Dallas convention center Donald Trump Immigration Immigration reform Joe Biden Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center Migrant children Unaccompanied minors

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