When the news broke that some 3,000 migrant boys would be held in the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, Dallas City Council member Jaime Resendez had a simple message: He wanted the community to show them "mercy and grace."
It's not that controversial of a message, but the representative for the city's District 5 received an angry email the next day. “I heard your quote that we need to provide ‘mercy and grace’ to the hoard of illegal alien invaders," it read. "[N]o, idiot, we need to arrest and depot them PERIOD! Maybe we need to to depot your stupid ass as well… [sic]”
Walking past the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, you'd likely never know at one point thousands of migrant teen boys were inside. They weren't allowed out into the community, after all. But that didn't stop Dallas County residents from flooding city officials with angry emails like the one Resendez received.
The anti-immigrant emails came as Republican lawmakers drummed up a wave of panic over the border.
Since President Joe Biden came to office in January, Gov. Greg Abbott and other Republican lawmakers, including here in Texas, have stoked fear about his administration's immigration policies.
Republicans claim Biden opened the border to a flood of immigrants, although arrivals started to rise last year while former President Donald Trump was still in office.
Resendez said the way some Republican lawmakers talk about immigration is harming people’s perception of asylum seekers. "The rhetoric serves to dehumanize and discredit legitimate asylum seekers," he said. "I think it just creates a situation where people could be more likely to hold skeptical views of immigrants in the country, seeing them as not honest or more likely to commit crimes."
Just this week, Abbott issued a disaster declaration along the southern border because of the rise in arrivals. In a press release, the governor said, "President Biden's open-border policies have paved the way for dangerous gangs and cartels, human traffickers, and deadly drugs like fentanyl to pour into our communities."
In March, Abbott also criticized the decision to temporarily house migrant teens in sites in the U.S. One of those sites was the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas where up to 3,000 teen boys would be sent until more permanent shelter could be found.
The day some of the first teens were supposed to arrive in Dallas, Abbott held a press conference across the street from the convention center. Abbott painted the children as a potential threat for the spread of COVID-19.
“These sites are a direct result of President Biden’s reckless open border policies that are causing a surge in border crossings and cartel activity,” Abbott said at the press conference. “The administration has yet to provide answers that Texans deserve. How long will these children be here, what countries have they come from and what COVID variants were they exposed to?”
Abbott also said in a Tweet, "The Biden Administration is recklessly releasing hundreds of illegal immigrants who have COVID into Texas communities."
Meanwhile, Dallas County residents fired off angry emails to the city and local officials. Obtained by local resident Zack C. Hall through an open records request, many emails described the children as "aliens," "infectious" and potential criminals.
Hall, who's starting a grassroots group called Texans for Democracy, forwarded the emails to the Observer.
The U.S. Border Patrol is only supposed to detain children entering the country without documentation for up to three days, but the U.S. Health and Human Services Department has nearly run out of space to put the unaccompanied children they pick up at the border, leaving them in the agency’s custody even longer.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, authorities are apprehending record numbers of people, including unaccompanied children, at the southwest border. The increase can partly be attributed to ongoing violence, natural disasters, food insecurity and poverty in Central America.
In an email sent to Mayor Eric Johnson’s office, one resident said they had serious concerns about having the teens in Dallas. “We should be having our border secured and ALL people allowed into America/Texas should be vetted and screened for this China-covid virus,” they wrote.
The email added, “My worry is that these recent migrants held in Dallas City limits could be serious criminals and have the virus.”
In another email to the mayor’s office, a couple insisted that the decision should have been left to the City Council. “This is a City Council decision, not management’s,” they wrote. “Once these 3,000 unscreened, perhaps Covid-19 infectious men escape or are released into the community, our fear is that they will prey on Dallas citizens for money to live on, since it is unlikely they will be employable due to language differences and lack of education.”
It wasn't just the mayor's office receiving the complaints. Nearly every council member and some other officials in Dallas received such emails urging them to keep the teens out of the city.
In an email to Rocky Vaz, director of the office of emergency management, another couple said the teens needed to be sent back to their home countries. “Mr. Vaz, our taxpayer dollars through FEMA should NOT be used to allow illegal men (very possibly gang members) or illegal teenagers to be housed in our city,” the email said. “These illegals will ultimately be a burden to Dallas taxpayers.”
The burdens many of these emailers failed to mention were the ones the migrant teens were facing in their hometowns or the ones they’d face inside the convention center.
Josephine Lopez-Paul, Dallas Area Interfaith’s lead organizer, called what was happening at Kay Bailey a humanitarian crisis.
Locked away in the center, some children would cry uncontrollably on their metal cots, which were lined up in rows along a hallway, volunteers recently told the Observer.
Opportunities to call their families back home could be few and far between, and they hardly ever got sunlight. One source said the longer the boys were in there, the more it felt like a prison to them.
Some volunteers at the convention center are bound by nondisclosure agreements. One of them agreed to talk to the Observer about the facility on the condition of anonymity.
“They’ll tell you that while they miss their family, that they would rather die than go back. I shouldn’t have a 13-year-old tell me that he would rather die than have to go back somewhere,” the source said, fighting back tears.
Despite the heated complaints, Jaime Resendez stands by his call to welcome the boys and treat them with care. "We should treat these individuals as human beings and try to be compassionate because many of these folks are going through things or have gone through things that many of us couldn’t imagine," he said.
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