Effort to aid migrant children won’t cost county taxpayers, Jenkins says

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins vowed Monday that county taxpayers will not foot the bill for his plan to shelter up to 2,000 migrant children who have fled illegally into Texas from Central America.

Jenkins said the federal government is evaluating sites in Dallas County where a private contractor could operate two centers to provide temporary care to the children before they are moved into the custody of relatives in the United States or into foster care. One site would be in Dallas, and the other would probably be outside the city, he said.

Dallas County’s role would be to coordinate volunteer services to help provide clothing, supplies and support for the migrant children, he said. More than 50,000 children have already arrived in the U.S., mostly in Texas, from Central American countries torn by political strife and violence.

The children have been detained by federal officials after crossing over the border into the U.S.

“This is the compassionate thing to do,” Jenkins said. “Regardless of what you think about immigration, regardless of what you think of the parents who sent them here, these are children. ... I think it’s a great opportunity for us to step up and practice what we preach.”

He said the locations of the two care centers could be announced as early as Tuesday and that they could be operating later this month.

He said he planned to travel to McAllen on Wednesday to tour federal facilities housing some of the children. He is to be joined by state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, and the Rev. Frederick D. Haynes III, senior pastor of Dallas’ Friendship-West Baptist Church, among others.

Mike Miles, superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District, said Monday that the district offered the use of any of three vacant schools — Billy Earl Dade Annex in South Dallas, Harllee Elementary in Oak Cliff and Hulcy Middle School in Red Bird.

Jenkins said those are among a dozen sites in the county being considered. The agencies taking part in the evaluations include the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, the Office of Refugee Resettlement under the Department of Health and Human Services and the General Services Administration.

The federal government, through its contractor, would prepare and operate the facilities, Jenkins said.

The county would “coordinate volunteers and ... create volunteer opportunities to bring some joy and compassion to these children, who have been through a terrible ordeal,” he said. “And we’ll continue to partner with the faith community and others to do what is necessary to bring some sense of normalcy back to these children.”

The plan, which Jenkins announced Saturday at the Texas Democratic Convention in Dallas, has its critics. Jenkins said his office was flooded Monday with callers opposed to sheltering the migrant children here.

Among the critics was Mike Cantrell, the only Republican on the Commissioners Court.

“We need to have compassion for those who stand in line to come to America the legal way,” Cantrell said. He said he was skeptical of Jenkins’ claim that the sheltering effort won’t cost Dallas County taxpayers.

“Where does it stop?” he said. “And is there any guarantee that there will be any money from the federal government?”

Community support

Many of the nonprofit agencies that might be expected to provide services to the children were not aware of Jenkins’ proposal until after he announced it Saturday. Nonetheless, they appeared willing to step up to help.

“It’s a humanitarian crisis,” said County Commissioner Elba Garcia. “How could you say no to children? ... You see children at your door saying, ‘I’m lost. I need to find my mom.’ Would you close your door to them?”

Rene Martinez, director of the League of United Latin American Citizens for northeast Texas, said the organization has pledged its support.

“We have volunteers,” said Martinez, a former DISD administrator. “Obviously they are going to have to have a lot of bilingual people.”

He said the relief effort could last longer than that for evacuees from Hurricane Katrina, as more children are rotated through the assistance centers.

“It’s a humanitarian effort,“ he said. “Dallas has an abundance of resources for these kids.”

Terry Henderson, state disaster relief director with Texas Baptist Men, said the group was waiting to meet with Jenkins’ office to determine what, if any, role it would play.

“We’re here to help,” Henderson said. “It’s not a big surprise. It’s like when the governor calls on the Red Cross to come in and help.”

Alvin Migues, a divisional disaster director with the Salvation Army, said his group, too, stood ready to help, at least temporarily.

“Working with children, things can be a little complicated,” Migues said. “This is one of those situations where you do what you can. When we’re asked to assist, we’re going to assist.”

More questions

West, the state senator who planned to visit South Texas with Jenkins, said he wanted a firsthand look at the children’s plight.

“I want to see exactly whether there is a plan in place to transition these kids back to their home countries or to relatives here in the United States,” he said.

West added: “The taxpayers of Texas or Dallas County should not be burdened with the financial responsibility for taking care of these kids. The federal government needs to step up.”

County Commissioner Theresa Daniel said she supports helping the children but wants to know more about the plan.

“I desperately want to explore what we can do to help,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean we rush into it. I do have questions that have to be answered.”

Commissioner John Wiley Price said officials are working to coordinate the response.

“There’s a lot of moving parts. ... We have some planning time,” he said.

Staff writers Sherry Jacobson, Dianne Solís and Matthew Haag contributed to this report.