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San Antonio readies to shelter thousands of children who have crossed the border

SAN ANTONIO — The first 500 of thousands of youths who have recently crossed the U.S.-Mexico border were to arrive Monday evening to be housed at a local arena, the federal government announced.

The 13- to 17-year-old teenage boys were to be housed at Freeman Coliseum Expo Center where they will get a medical screening, given clothes and toiletries, food and snacks and a place to rest, the Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement.

The expo center, two large buildings that are part of the Freeman Coliseum, has a capacity of 2,100 beds, HHS said.

San Antonio is expecting about 2,400 children who have been transported from Customs and Border Protection custody or custody in more temporary shelters.

The Biden administration is renting the Freeman Coliseum in the city. The coliseum is owned by Bexar County, where San Antonio is. HHS said in its statement the facility has “external capacity” of 300 medical beds but it was unclear if those were on site or contracted in the local area.

“Trying to think of everything”

Catholic Charities Archdiocese of San Antonio said Monday that vetting had begun for at least 350 volunteers who answered its call for help in anticipation of the arrival of the children.

J. Antonio Fernandez, Catholic Charities San Antonio CEO, said seeing the thousands of nicely organized cots erected for the many children was difficult.

He said he probably would not want his 10-year old daughter in such a situation, but “is it better than what they have when they were in the Mexican border, maybe yes.”

“You want to do what is best for the kids, you are trying to be respectful and I’m trying to think of everything. It’s like we are going to need soccer balls, we are going to need hygiene kits, we are going to need Bibles.”

Tara Ford, a spokeswoman for Catholic Charities San Antonio, said Monday afternoon that volunteers who answered the local media request for assistance are undergoing criminal background checks.

Ford said that the response from people in the community wanting to volunteer was swift, and some 500 to 1,000 ultimately could be used.

The organization has said that it helps if volunteers are bilingual, but those who only speak English won’t be turned away.

Ford directed people who want to volunteer to the Catholic Charities’ website. Those who want to donate items can go to the site for find items on the organization’s Amazon wish list and also to donate money.

“We are trying to make sure we are ready to go,” she said.

Freeman Coliseum is used for the city-county stock show and rodeo, but also is a venue for concerts, trade shows and sports events. It also has been used as a Covid-19 testing site, prepped for potential hospital overflow as hospitalizations rose, and to house hurricane refugees, among other things.

Catholic Charities was contacted by the federal government to assist with and coordinate volunteers. Other groups and agencies also are involved.

Catholic Charities of San Antonio helped reunite families after the Trump administration intentionally separated children from their parents as part of a zero tolerance border policy. Some of those children have not yet been reunited with parents.

Fernandez said that experience was different because Immigration and Customs Service would contact them and let them know to expect children, but the arrival times were always changing so that staff had to be on call at all hours.

Also there was no pandemic at the time and other federal government agencies did not assist with the families.

HHS said it has built its licensed bed capacity to about 13,500 beds, but it needs more because of the pandemic and the increasing number of unaccompanied children arriving at the border.

The border has seen a spike in arrivals of unaccompanied children, and their arrivals have led to dueling congressional visits to South Texas.

Democrats led by Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas went to a facility in Carrizo Springs on Friday to check on the treatment of the children who were there and asked about needs of the workers caring for them. They criticized former President Donald Trump for dismantling the asylum system, saying it contributed to the spike in border crossings. The facility has 952 beds.

Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, both Texas Republicans, led a group of Republican senators to the Rio Grande Valley where they criticized President Joe Biden’s immigration policies as responsible for the rise in arrivals. The Trump administration had expelled children who arrived without parents, using a law regarding the pandemic to do so.

Cruz continued the finger-pointing Monday in a visit to a Dallas shelter, which can house up to 2,300. Cruz said about 2,200 teenage boys were there. He said the Dallas Convention Center had been turned into a detention center, but he acknowledged the conditions are better than on the border.

NBC News reported that Biden transition officials accused the Trump administration of not taking action and instead “sitting on their hands” when they and career officials warned of the need for more shelter space for arriving children who were crossing the border.

Other shelters have been set up in Pecos, Texas, with up to 2,000 beds, another site in Dimmit, Texas for 500 children, a site in San Diego, with up to 1,450 beds and a site planned at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas with up to 5,000-bed capacity.

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