Texas governor suddenly concerned about abuse of immigrants after years of silence

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Greg Abbott said he didn't need to speak out against sexual abuse in immigrant detention centers during the Trump administration because they weren't his concern then.

Texas GOP Gov. Greg Abbott on Sunday was confronted about why he was suddenly speaking up against alleged sexual abuse in immigrant detention centers but was silent on the issue during the Trump administration.

Abbott last Wednesday called the Freeman Coliseum, an event center in the state which is currently housing around 1,300 unaccompanied immigrant children, "a health and safety nightmare," after he says he learned of sexual assault allegations at the facility in San Antonio, Texas.

On Friday, Abbott sent a letter to Vice President Kamala Harris requesting the closure of the Freeman facility, citing allegations of sexual assault. Although he attached a memo with three anonymous reports of abuses at the facility sent to Texas agencies, those reports did not indicate there had been incidents of sexual assault. But Abbott has persisted in his claims.

In an interview on Fox News Sunday, host Chris Wallace asked Abbott, "Governor, there were thousands of complaints of sexual abuse at migrant shelters during the Trump years. Not to say what's going on now is right, but we couldn't find one instance of you complaining and calling that out when President Trump was president."

Abbott claimed that this time was different, arguing that the Trump administration, unlike Biden's, was in "constant communication" with him and his office.

He continued to defend his actions by saying, "I saw reports about exactly what you're talking about and saw that those reports were filed with federal agencies. The one that I talked about earlier this past week were reports that were filed with state agencies."

"So we have a duty to respond to any complaint about child sexual abuse in Texas as well as to investigate it and that's exactly what I did to make sure it was addressed," he continued.

But some lawmakers and advocates have been skeptical of Abbott's concern about the sexual abuse allegations.

As Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX) and other state lawmakers toured the Freeman Coliseum shelter last Friday, they pushed for evidence to support Abbott's claims.

"The governor doesn't care about these kids. The governor wants to send all these kids back to the dangerous place that they came from so it’s not like the governor has a big heart, right? But whatever evidence the governor has, the governor should put forward," Castro said.

Democratic Texas State Rep. Trey Fischer added, "The children in this facility are not anybody’s political piñata," of Abbott's comments.

"If there are allegations, we take those serious and (Texas Health and Human Services) is the first to lead an investigation. But for the governor to play these piñata politics and do little or nothing to support the claim… we have to take that at face value," he said.

Jonathan Ryan, who leads the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), added in a statement, "The only reason why Abbott is now acting like he cares about the children in these facilities is for political reasons."

"What the governor wants is for the Biden administration to stop allowing children to seek home and safety in this country," the nonprofit's CEO said. "That is not the solution to the challenge we have in front of us. We must ensure the children are released as soon as possible and be reunited with their families in the U.S."

Indeed, Abbott did not speak out about the sexual abuse allegations in detention centers while it was happening under Donald Trump.

A 2018 ProPublica report exposed widespread allegations of sexual offenses in immigrant youth shelters.

For instance, at a Southwest Key shelter in Conroe, Texas, in May 2018, a police report revealed that a boy alerted a youth care worker that his mental health counselor started to unbuckle his own pants and then stopped. The counselor also caressed the boy's face and rubbed his arm, the boy claimed, according to the police report.

"If you're a predator, it's a gold mine," Lisa Fortuna, Boston Medical Center's child and adolescent psychiatry director told ProPublica. "You have full access."

The Department of Health and Human Services received over 4,500 complaints of sexual harassment and abuse against government-run immigrant shelters between 2014 and 2018, according to the Texas Tribune. But the agency received 859 complaints, the highest number of reports from March 2018 to July 2018 than any five-month period from the prior four years, the New York Times noted. Abbott was silent.

Another 2020 ProPublica report found that Immigration and Customs Enforcement guards allegedly had a "pattern and practice" of abuse against and "systematically" sexually assaulted detained immigrants at a detention facility in El Paso, Texas, according to lawsuit filed by advocacy groups.

Abbott didn't speak out about those allegations either.

Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-TX) slammed the Texas governor at a Thursday press conference.

"Gov. Greg Abbott has zero credibility on this or any other issue related to protecting human life," Escobar said. "We saw Gov. Abbott's failure to protect his own citizens during the freeze. We saw Gov. Abbott play politics with COVID."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.