Non-Profit Corporation’s Proposal to House Young Immigrants Downtown No Longer Includes Children Under 16

The corporation that had sought to house immigrant children ages 0 to 17 in a downtown Houston building for the federal government has revised its city permit application to solely shelter children who are 16 and 17 years old.

By restricting occupants of 419 Emancipation to the oldest minors, the non-profit Southwest Key Programs is entitled to operate with a “residential” certificate of occupancy as long as it makes repairs cited by city inspectors.

Southwest Key has sought since spring 2018 to house at the site hundreds of migrant “unaccompanied minors,” a term used by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement to describe children separated from parents or guardians by U.S. Border Patrol agents at the southern U.S. border and children who crossed the border on their own, many seeking asylum.

“I opposed the original Southwest Key plan because it sought to house children ages 0 to 17 who had been separated from their parents,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “The initial application for a certificate of occupancy did not satisfy the city’s regulatory requirements and was inconsistent with our values of keeping families together. My objection was and always will be about the children.”

Since the original certificate of occupancy was submitted, the federal government has now abandoned the family separation policy, at least officially, although some young children reportedly have not yet been reunited with their families.

According to Southwest Key, the 419 Emancipation facility it calls Casa Sunzal will house residents “who will be capable of self-preservation without physical assistance.”

The 16- and 17-year-olds will be sheltered “until either a suitable relative or other adult assumes responsibility for them or they are deported as a result of immigration proceedings,” Southwest Key regional director Marisela Saldana said in a November declaration.

In January, city inspectors found locks on sleeping room windows that can be used for emergency escapes and rescues. To avoid permit violations, the locks must be removed, missing fire-suppression sprinkler heads must be replaced and minor electrical and plumbing repairs must be made. Once these conditions are met, the City Building Official will issue a new Certificate of Occupancy consistent with the revised application.

“I hope our national leaders will move ahead with comprehensive immigration reform that provides compassionate and common-sense solutions to the larger issues rather than trigger humanitarian crises that clash with our American values,” Mayor Turner said. “And I hope our leaders will find their resolve in the people of Houston, where we welcome refugees and other immigrants into a city whose economy and culture are enhanced by the initiative of people from around the world.”