McALLEN, Texas (AP) – Overwhelmed by the arrival of thousands of unaccompanied immigrant children, the state of Texas relaxed its standards for the shelters that house them, easing rules governing how much space each child needs and what kind of facilities they should have.
In some ways, the response to the influx resembled the reaction to a hurricane, with federally contracted shelters asking the state licensing agency to temporarily bend some of its regulations to accommodate a large population of children.
As with a natural disaster, President Barack Obama put the Federal Emergency Management Agency in charge of coordinating the government's response. Disaster-relief teams towed their portable showers and kitchens to the border, and Catholic Charities took donations and distributed clothing and supplies to the displaced.
Kyle Janek, executive commissioner of Texas Health and Human Services, instructed the state body that licenses shelters to work with them.
"Because of the large numbers we were seeing in a short period of time," Janek said, he directed the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to lower shelter standards to the same level as after a hurricane. He made the remarks late last month in testimony to a legislative committee.
The regulatory changes reduced the number of square feet required for each child and allowed more children to be housed per available toilet, sink and shower. Some shelters proposed having additional kids sleep on cots — an idea that was approved. A suggestion to give them air mattresses was denied, according to shelter documents obtained by The Associated Press through an open-records request.
Even with the changes, the shelters are a world away from the crowded conditions in the Border Patrol station holding cells where children were held for days for processing. At the shelters, children take classes, receive hot meals and can play.
More than 57,000 children, most from Central America, entered the U.S. illegally between October and June without a parent or guardian. That was more than double the number who arrived over the same period a year earlier.
Requests for rule exceptions, called variances, are evaluated for hygiene concerns and the potential risk for the spread of diseases such as chicken pox and tuberculosis, as well as "maintaining appropriate supervision ratios," Patrick Crimmins, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, said in an email.
At the end of July, nine Texas shelters were operating with variances that allowed additional capacity, Crimmins said.
"This is obviously not business as usual. If a provider steps up and wants to try and shelter more children, we will help make that happen," he said.
Once they are processed by the Border Patrol, children are placed in the custody of the government's Office of Refugee Resettlement. They stay at federal government shelters until they reunite with family members in the U.S. or move to longer-term foster care to await their day in immigration court.
After hovering around 6,000 or 7,000 for several years, the number of children in the federal shelters doubled in 2012 and doubled again in 2013, before surging higher still this year.
The agency responded by increasing the number of available beds in its shelter network — from 3,300 in 2012 to 5,000 in 2013. With the addition of three temporary shelters, that number rose this year to more than 7,000.
At the end of July, the shelter caseload was down to about 6,300 children in 100 permanent facilities and three large temporary shelters on military bases in Texas, Oklahoma and California. The caseload had been more than 7,600 in mid-June.
On Monday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced that it was suspending operations at three temporary shelters in coming weeks because the number of children crossing the border has declined and because the agency had "expanded capacity to care for children in standard shelters."
Some of that additional capacity was achieved by adding beds to existing shelters.
One application by Southwest Key Programs, an Austin-based nonprofit that is the country's largest supplier of services to unaccompanied minors, noted that it would be adding two children to each room of four, reducing the space per child from 60 square feet to 40 square feet. A program spokeswoman confirmed they had requested variances, but did not respond to requests for interviews.
Because the rule change was being requested for only a short time, "purchasing frame beds would not be practical," according to the program's application. The nonprofit planned to purchase air mattresses or cots. The state approved the variance but stipulated that air mattresses were not acceptable.
For other variances that loosened state standards requiring one sink, toilet and shower for every eight children, the state required shelters to make a schedule to ensure that every child had sufficient time for personal hygiene.