Mayor Turner Wants No Part of Baby Jails in Houston

Mayor Sylvester Turner and other Houston officials in a defining moment.
Mayor Sylvester Turner and other Houston officials in a defining moment. Photo by Mohammad Mia

click to enlarge Mayor Sylvester Turner and other Houston officials in a defining moment. - PHOTO BY MOHAMMAD MIA
Mayor Sylvester Turner and other Houston officials in a defining moment.
Photo by Mohammad Mia
Mayor Sylvester Turner did not mince words Tuesday afternoon at City Hall, where he held a press conference to inform Houstonians about the proposed East downtown Houston detention center intended to house immigrant children separated from their families at the Texas border.

In recent days, reports surfaced that officials intend to use the warehouse located at 419 Emancipation to deal with the increasing number of children that are being ripped from their families at the border. The empty warehouse, which is owned by 419 Hope Partners, has been previously used by the Star of Hope to provide refuge for homeless women and, most recently, as a shelter for those displaced by the devastation of Hurricane Harvey.

As he stood beside council members and leaders from faith based organizations and nonprofits, Turner emphasized that while they come from diverse backgrounds they are united in their opposition “to the unjust and immoral policy of ripping apart families and taking children away from their families”.

Turner shared that he only learned about the proposed residential facility this past week, when he was informed that Southwest Key Programs had signed a lease on the warehouse. The news came as a blow to the Mayor's Office given that they were in talks with David Denenburg, the owner of the property, to use the space to address Houston’s homelessness problem.

According to Turner, “we were talking with David Denenburg to lease this very same property as a shelter for long-term homeless people. It was going to be a collaborative effort between the City of Houston and Harris County...which would provide behavioral and mental health services...along with meals at no cost to the homeless population.” The collaborative effort was intended to curb Houston’s increasing homeless population, through providing holistic services and care that attended to substance abuse issues along with mental healthcare.

Southwest Key Programs, a $240 million organization that operates 26 facilities throughout South Texas, Arizona, and California, says that the new facility will be able to offer more hospitable conditions. According to a statement from Hope Partners, the warehouse contains features such as “a full bathroom, a commercial kitchen, an outdoor playground, a child care area, and other amenities”, which Southwest Key believes will provide better living conditions for those separated from their families.

The CEO of the Austin-based organization, Dr. Juan Sanchez, defended the shelters and in a recent interview with KRGV stated, “We are the good guys. We are the people that are taking these kids, putting them in a shelter, providing the best service we can for them, and reuniting them with their family”.

Critics of the proposed shelter believe that the conditions are inhumane and unequipped to house children of ages up to 17 years old. The need for facilities has grown in the recent wake of President Trump’s zero tolerance policy, which seeks to prosecute as many border crossing offenses as possible in efforts to curb the number of people entering the United States as they flee rampant violence and instability in their home countries. Since children cannot be prosecuted alongside their parents, there has been a sharp rise in family separations with the Department of Homeland Security noting that nearly 2,000 immigrant children were separated between April and May.

In a period of great political turmoil that has divided the country, Turner took a moment to address this, saying  “I have done my best to try to stay clear of the national dialogue on many issues...but there comes a time when Americans, when Houstonians, when Texans, have to say to those higher than ourselves that this is wrong.”

State Senator Sylvia Garcia also took the time to demonstrate her commitment to shutting down facilities like the one planned for EaDo stating, “We stand in opposition to this proposed “baby jail” and any new facility like it anywhere. I will go to El Paso, I will go to McAllen, I will go wherever it takes to shut this down”.

M.J. Khan, former Houston City Council Member and current president of the Islamic Society of Greater Houston,  denounced the move, stating, “We follow the teachings of the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad, which teaches that family sanctity is important. The Muslim community is very concerned. We all have children, I have two grandkids and and can only imagine if somebody tried to rip them apart from us.”
click to enlarge Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said he was proud to be part of the Houston community. - PHOTO BY MOHAMMAD MIA
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said he was proud to be part of the Houston community.
Photo by Mohammad Mia
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo also took the time to thank Turner for his courage in standing against the proposed facility and exclaimed, “I am proud to be a member of the community of Houston. Where we don’t care whether you’re black or white, rich or poor, documented or undocumented, we care about the content of people’s hearts.”

While the lease has already been signed, Turner noted that “the Houston Fire Department has yet to inspect this facility, the Health Department has yet to provide a food or shelter permit, and as far as I know, the State of Texas has yet to license this facility”; a set of observations that was received with thunderous applause. Moving forward the City of Houston intends to proceed carefully and methodically, ensuring every conceivable step is taken to promote the wellbeing of children that may be hosted at the facility.
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Houston Press contributor Mohammad Mia is a freelance photographer and journalist whose interested in exploring what it means to be human. Whether covering Houston activism or music festivals, he likes to keep an eye out for the small moments that make life worth living. When he's not working on The Not So Cool podcast you can find him reading or enjoying a taco, or four, at Tacos Tierra Caliente.