Story by Lauren Villagran | Photos by Briana Sanchez, El Paso Times
PECOS, Texas – Maria Baeza Valeriano opened her front door to the view of a closed-down hotel and an oil workers’ camp, where migrant boys played soccer behind a shaded chain-link fence.
“I feel so bad for them, for being all alone,” said Baeza Valeriano, who, in her 80s, is a mother of five, grandmother of 19 and great-grandmother of eight. “It’s a lot, that the parents let their children go. I wouldn’t let go of my children for anything.”
Faced with thousands of children arriving at the Southwest border without a parent or guardian, the Biden administration has rushed to find places to house them. The Department of Health and Human Services this week had more than 21,000 children in its care — a record.
The number of children arriving alone at the border has outstripped the ability of HHS’ state-licensed shelters to house them, and the agency has resorted to pricier, less regulated temporary sites in Texas and elsewhere to pull the kids out of Border Patrol custody, where advocates say conditions are overcrowded and far from ideal.
The Biden administration has popped up more than 16,000 temporary beds in “influx” and “emergency intake” shelters in the four weeks through April 14: at military installations, including at Fort Bliss and Lackland in San Antonio; at convention centers in Dallas, San Antonio and San Diego; at a warehouse in Houston, and at the so-called man camp in the town of Pecos, population 10,641.
“There has never been a time when so many facilities and beds were added for unaccompanied children in such a short period of time,” said Mark Greenberg, a senior fellow with the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute and former administrator in HHS’ Administration for Children and Families.
“But this has been driven by the urgency of the situation and the severity of overcrowding at Customs and Border Protection,” he said.
On a recent Friday, dozens of boys could be seen tossing an American football with caregivers, playing soccer or shooting hoops between the mobile home-style dormitories, sectioned into rooms. A mural painted on one wall inside the complex said “welcome” in English, Spanish, indigenous Quechua and Haitian Creole.
If all 2,000 beds in Target Lodge are occupied, a fifth of the people living in the town ― isolated from everything and everyone outside the camp’s fences ― will be migrant children ages 13 to 17.
A boom in children, ’emergency shelters’
U.S. Border Patrol apprehended more than 5,600 unaccompanied children in January. The number grew to more than 9,200 in February, then swelled again to more than 18,600 children in March ― a record for apprehensions of unaccompanied children in a single month.
HHS is tasked with sheltering unaccompanied minors and connecting them to a sponsor in the U.S., most often a parent. The 13,500 beds in its network of permanent, state-licensed shelters is essentially exhausted.
Child advocates say they appreciate the government’s efforts to have children speedily transferred out of CBP custody but have expressed concerns about conditions, which can vary widely.
Unlike at state-licensed shelters, there is no legal standard for what the Biden administration is calling “emergency intake” sites, including the one in Pecos.
Like influx facilities, emergency intake sites are not licensed by state child welfare agencies, said Neha Desai, immigration director at the National Center for Youth Law.
“We are still waiting for the government to clarify what standards are required for Emergency Intake Sites (EIS),” she said. “Given that thousands of children are currently placed within these EISs for weeks at a time, it is critical that transparent standards to ensure the welfare of children are in place.”
In an emailed response to questions, HHS said the “emergency intake” sites are a collaboration with FEMA and are “a temporary measure.”
The “emergency intake sites provide required standards of care for children, such as providing clean and comfortable sleeping quarters, meals, toiletries, laundry, recreational activities and access to medical services,” according to the statement.
Last week, ABC News reported that HHS abruptly canceled a $4 million contract for an “emergency intake” site with a Houston-based disaster services agency after allegations surfaced that unaccompanied girls were required to stay at their cots day and night; some were allegedly asked to relieve themselves into plastic bags for lack of staff to accompany them to the bathroom, according to the report.
The shelter — 500 cots inside a warehouse — was shut down after 17 days.
HHS said in a statement that the 450 girls housed there “will be immediately unified with sponsors or transferred to an appropriate ORR facility.”
Nearly ‘everything emptied out’
A three-hour drive east of El Paso, Pecos sits at the intersection of the Interstate 20 and Highway 285, a crossroads in the southwest corner of the Permian Basin. Bright orange natural gas flames wave like flags on the roads outside town.
It’s more than 150 miles from the Mexican border, a truck stop on a flat expanse of Chihuahuan desert west of the Pecos River.
The oil market has been slowly crawling out of a bust. The pandemic hit the energy industry hard as the U.S. economy slumped and demand for everything from gasoline to jet fuel dried up.
The town is uniquely suited to host newcomers in a hurry, with hotels, sprawling RV parks and modular housing known locally as “man camps.”
“We’ve got 17 hotels in town and, at our high point, they had 99% capacity,” Pecos City Manager Seth Sorensen said. “We’ve seen a pretty good dip in that, and it’s almost entirely related to the oil field (being down) and COVID and people not being able to travel.”
The Pecos oil workers camp was nearly empty when HHS came knocking.
HHS is paying about $775 per night per child at “emergency intake” sites, versus about $260 per night per child at permanent shelters, according to U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Laredo), who serves on the House appropriations committee.
Baeza Valeriano has seen the town’s economic transformation from her front porch. Her gray brick home was once surrounded by fields of cantaloupe and cotton, before a plague ruined the crops and petroleum became king. Originally from Mexico, she recalled working the melon harvest with her sons at her side. They grew up to work in the oil industry; one became a Border Patrol agent.
“In years past, there was a lot of work everywhere you looked,” Baeza Valeriano said. “Then, everything emptied out, including that lodge. Now they say the government is paying for it.”
Two garbage cans blocked the locked entrance to the Cobblestone Hotel & Suites in front of her home. At the man camp-turned-shelter next door, four security guards guarded the entrance, while landscapers filled flower boxes with soil and blooming plants.
Privately operated children’s shelter
Target Hospitality Inc. owns and operates the lodge. The company bills itself as a provider of “turnkey accommodations,” primarily to the oil and gas industry but also to government customers.
On its website, the company advertises its services: “Whether you need just five rooms or 5,000, turnkey accommodations and hospitality solutions from Target Hospitality is a great way to keep your work environment safe and comfortable without the cost and timetable of building a customized facility.”
The company runs 24 housing complexes in the Permian Basin of West Texas and Bakken Basin of North Dakota that cater to the oil and gas workers who pour into fields under exploration or production. Its shares trade around $3 on the Nasdaq.
Target Hospitality is also a government contractor, a business segment that generates 28% of its annual revenue, or about $63 million, according to its 2020 annual report to investors. Target Hospitality runs re-entry housing facilities for felons. It also built, owns and operates the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas.
The 2,400-bed detention center is one of three facilities where U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has historically detained migrant families. Staffed by prison corporation CoreCivic, Target Hospitality manages the detention center’s culinary and janitorial services under a contract through 2026.
At the Pecos lodge, San Antonio-based Endeavors is supplying staff, including caregivers and case workers.
Lawmakers weigh in on conditions of facilities
U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-San Antonio), whose district encompasses more than 800 miles of U.S.-Mexico border, toured the Pecos lodge last week.
“There were 613 children at the time,” he said. “They were expecting 125 additional children every other day. The facility was getting built out,” he said, to accommodate up to 2,000 children.
“They had a lot of staff on site — over 600 members of staff. So there was a lot of oversight at that location,” he said.
In El Paso, U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-El Paso) has visited the emergency intake shelter at Fort Bliss and described conditions, though far from ideal, as an improvement on conditions in Border Patrol custody.
“The influx facilities are a good temporary urgent response,” Escobar said. “They clearly are not the best location for kids for longer for than, really, a couple of weeks, which is what they told me the goal was.”
“The main improvement, for me, is they are no longer in DHS custody,” she said. “They are surrounded by people who are child welfare professionals. The focus is holding children in conditions as best possible given the circumstances while they find the sponsor.”
A community divided
Pecos leaders in Reeves County responded with silence when asked about their community playing an emergency role in hosting migrant children.
Pecos Mayor David Flores didn’t respond to repeated requests for an interview, nor did Reeves County Judge Leo Hung. Ken Winkles, executive director of the Pecos Economic Development Corp. declined to comment on the shelter. City Manager Sorensen also declined to answer questions about Target Lodge hosting unaccompanied minors.
The conversion of Target Lodge to a shelter for unaccompanied minors was front-page news for the Pecos Enterprise newspaper in early April. The story quoted a deputy sheriff who testified at a County Commissioners Court meeting about safety concerns.
“We will place a dedicated patrol presence in the area. The kids will not be free to go, and if there is an escape, we will respond and coordinate efforts with the feds,” Reeves County Chief Deputy Ernest Lazcano said. “Our call volume is still very high, even with the oil field down. There will have to be some overtime pulled, because at the beginning we will treat this like the worst case scenario.”
The children are being bused into town, directly into the shelter complex where they will remain until they are reunited with a sponsor, which can take weeks to coordinate.
But Pecos is far from the border, and although many in the Hispanic-majority community can trace their roots to Mexico, residents aren’t accustomed to hosting new immigrants.
Michael Baldwin, a welding inspector who works in Pecos and posts Tik Tok videos in his hardhat, has taken to posting videos of the charter buses. He voiced concerns in a March 27 Facebook post that “they gave all oil and gas tenants in the man camps a 2-day notice to vacate” and used profanity in a video taping their arrival.
The post, which included photos of charter buses, was shared more than 45,000 times.
At Alfredo’s Restaurant on Cedar Street, a main drag through town, server Eva Arredondo swished around the dining room with a pitcher full of salsa. She brought out plates of enchiladas and tampiqueña steak to men in jeans and heavy work boots.
“We feel bad for the children,” she said. “If their parents leave them out there… How can we let somebody starve? If you see someone who is weak, isn’t it just in you to give them something to eat?”
“It’s kinda hard,” she said. “You can look at it one way, or you can see it another way. There are a lot of pros or cons. A lot of people don’t like it but there is nothing we can do about it.”
Cover photo: Migrant children at a shelter for unaccompanied minors April 9, 2021, in Pecos. The property is owned by Target Hospitality. It was formerly used by oil field workers for lodging while at a job worksite. It is now housing migrant children.
This story was originally published by the El Paso Times. Lauren Villagran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.