Serious concerns raised about governor’s shelter order

A migrant child reads her Bible at the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition center in Del Rio. (File Photo from September 2019, courtesy of Shon Young)


Gov. Greg Abbott ordered state officials to revoke the licenses of facilities housing unaccompanied migrant minors detained at the U.S.-Mexico border—a move that prompted the Biden administration to threaten a lawsuit and some Baptist leaders in Texas to voice alarm.

“Gov. Abbott’s decision to withdraw these licenses obstructs the work of faith-based organizations, impedes the service of people of faith, and hampers the federal government from fulfilling its legal obligations to these children,” said Jesse Rincones, executive director of the Hispanic Baptist Convention of Texas.

On Memorial Day, Abbott issued a proclamation declaring a disaster in 34 counties due to “the ongoing surge of individuals unlawfully crossing the Texas-Mexico border.”

The governor ordered the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to “discontinue state licensing of any child-care facility in this state that shelters or detains unlawful immigrants or other individuals not lawfully present in the United States.” Abbott’s order called on Health and Human Services to “wind down” any existing licenses over a 90-day period.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement operates 53 state-licensed facilities in Texas, and a significant percentage of the migrant children sheltered by the U.S. government are in licensed Texas facilities.

Abbott’s order prompted Cindy Huang, director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, to send an email June 2 to partnering agencies acknowledging the Texas governor’s proclamation would “likely impact our grantees’ ability to care for unaccompanied migrant children for purposes of unifying them with family members or other suitable sponsors as quickly and safely as possible.”

“We are assessing the directive and do not intend to close any facilities as a result of the order,” Huang wrote.

Subsequently on June 7, Paul Rodriguez, a lawyer for HHS, wrote a letter to Abbott giving Texas until June 11 to clarify whether it plans to apply the emergency order to shelters overseen by the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

If so, it would be considered “a direct attack” on the federal immigration system, and HHS would consult with the U.S. Department of Justice “to pursue whatever appropriate legal action is necessary to ensure the safety and well-being of the vulnerable youth that Congress has entrusted to ORR,” Rodriguez stated.

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Baptists voice serious concern

The governor’s emergency order prompted swift and strong response from some Baptists in Texas.

“As a mother, it breaks my heart anytime precious children suffer from policies which do not put them first. It has been a hallmark of our Christian faith to care for vulnerable children for centuries,” said Katie Frugé, associate director of the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission.

“We urge Governor Abbott to consider an alternative approach that allows Texas Baptist ministries to serve, fulfilling the commands of Christ, ‘Whoever receives one child like this in my name receives me; and whoever receives me does not receive me, but him who sent me’ (Mark 9:36-37).”

Rincones of Convención likewise urged the governor to reconsider his position.

“Governor Abbott will be responsible for more kids being held in large shelters with no Texas oversight, diluting the religious freedom for Texas believers, and disrupting the work of Texas nonprofits,” Rincones said. “We’re praying that Governor Abbott will reconsider this position and allow Texas Christians the chance to care for these vulnerable children as an exercise of faith.”

The governor’s order does not have a direct impact on Buckner International or Children at Heart Ministries. However, it directly affects seven facilities operated by BCFS, formerly known as Baptist Child & Family Services, a spokesperson for the agency said.

It does not appear to affect the BCFS influx care facility at Carrizo Springs, which is a federal installation, the spokesperson added.

BCFS historically related to the Baptist General Convention of Texas, and Baptist pastors and laity continue to serve on the faith-based agency’s governing board.

“Forcing the closure of shelters protecting children awaiting reunification with their families would punish the weakest and most vulnerable people within our borders,” said Marv Knox, coordinator of Fellowship Southwest, an ecumenical network rooted in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

“As a follower of Jesus, I take seriously his admonition that we demonstrate how much we love God by how we treat ‘the least of these.’”

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