Mayor's office: Proposal for housing immigrants downtown no longer includes children under 16

HOUSTON (FOX 26) — A corporation’s proposal to house immigrant children in a facility in downtown Houston for the federal government no longer includes children under the age of 16, the mayor’s office says.

According to the mayor’s office, Southwest Keys Programs has revised its city permit application to solely shelter children who are 16 or 17, allowing them to operate with a “residential” certificate of occupancy if it makes repairs cited by city inspectors.

The mayor’s office says Southwest Key has sought since last spring “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.”

The mayor’s office says, according to Southwest Key, the facility on Emancipation 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.

According to the mayor’s office, once the repairs cited by city inspectors are made, “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.”

Immigration activists quickly responded to the news. 


"The City of Houston should not entrust children to [Southwest Key]," said David Michael Smith with Free Los Niños Coalition. The group was born in response to the proposed facility. Smith believes the city should consider the investigations into abuse Southwest Key facilities including a sexual abuse case in Arizona last year.

Southwest Key settled with the state and surrendered licenses for 2 of its facilities.

"We will engage in non-violent civil disobedience," added Smith. "We’ll put our bodies on the line to stop them from bringing in children."

Southwest Key sent the following statement to FOX 26:

Casa Sunzal will provide more than 200 immigrant youth access to medical care, counseling and educational services while the reunification process happens. The vast majority of youth in our care are fleeing extreme poverty and violence in Central America, leaving their homes and families behind to seek safety and a more secure future.

We have addressed all outstanding inspection issues and repairs raised by city inspectors. Our case workers, clinicians, teachers and program staff are eagerly awaiting the issuance of our Certificate of Occupancy so we can begin counseling and supporting these children.

The spokesman for the organization would not say when they expect the facility to open.