LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – The U.S. government is set to use the Dallas convention center – normally a venue for concerts and sports events – to house up to 3,000 migrant teen boys as it scrambles to address increasing overcrowding at facilities on the U.S.-Mexico border.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) plan to open the Dallas facility for boys between the ages of 15 and 17 as soon as this week, according to an email from a Dallas city official seen by Reuters.
Nearly 4,300 unaccompanied children were being held by border patrol officials as of Sunday, according to an agency official who requested anonymity to discuss the matter. Children are spending an average of nearly five days in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody, the official said.
By law, the children should be transferred out of the jail-like CBP facilities to shelters run by HHS within 72 hours. But as of Sunday, roughly 3,000 children were being held beyond that limit due to a lack of available shelter beds.
Under pressure from migrant advocates and critics within his Democratic Party, President Joe Biden’s administration is scrambling to speed up processing of hundreds of unaccompanied children who are crossing the southern border every day.
Republican critics blame Biden for relaxing some of former President Donald Trump’s hardline immigration policies, but Biden officials have fired back, saying they inherited a broken immigration system that had treated asylum seekers inhumanely.
FEMA and HHS will lease the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center from the city of Dallas to use it as a “decompression center” for teens, said the email seen by Reuters. The government plans to operate the facility for up to 90 days. The city of Dallas will not be involved in operations.
The convention center is one of the country’s largest, according to its website, with more than one million square feet of exhibit space and 88 meeting rooms. It is normally used for expos, sports events, concerts and auto shows.
The facility will house the teens while the government seeks to release them to a sponsor family or finds a more permanent shelter for them, the email said.
A FEMA spokesman declined to comment on the plan for the Dallas convention center but said FEMA aimed to “quickly expand” shelter capacity. The HHS agency that deals with the care of unaccompanied minors did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In a briefing on Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the Biden administration was looking at additional facilities to house more unaccompanied migrant children, but did not confirm that the Dallas facility was among those opening.
Reporting by Mimi Dwyer in Los Angeles and Ted Hesson in Washington, editing by Ross Colvin and Howard Goller