Texas Gov. Greg Abbott uttered nary a public syllable when it was revealed in 2019 that 1,000 unaccompanied migrant children had reported being sexually abused or harassed while in federal custody in his home state and elsewhere during the previous four years.
After all, that report came during the Trump administration.
But now Joe Biden is president. And so Abbott scrambled to hold a press conference on Wednesday as soon as state officials received a small number of unsubstantiated tips of abuse and neglect among approximately 1,600 unaccompanied migrant children at a temporary mega-shelter in San Antonio in Bexar County. He was flanked by Stetson-hatted Texas Rangers, the facility behind him as a backdrop, as if it were a crime scene.
“Earlier today, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission and the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services separately received tips that allege child abuse and neglect at the federal government’s child migrant facility at the Freeman Coliseum in San Antonio behind me,” he told the assembled media. “These problems are a byproduct of President Biden’s open border policies and the lack of planning for the fallout from those disastrous policies. Complaints that were sent to these state agencies include the following four things...”
The most sensational was first.
“Children at this facility are being sexually assaulted,” Abbott said.
Even a lone report of sexual abuse is alarming and has to be taken seriously. But Abbott was speaking as if there were ongoing and widespread assaults.
And whatever truth there may or may not be in that allegation, the rest of what he said would be convincingly dismissed by Bexar County officials as lies.
“Second, there are not enough staff to safely supervise the children at this facility,” Abbott continued. “Third, some children in this facility are not eating throughout the day. And fourth, children with COVID are not being physically separated from children without COVID.”
He concluded, “In short, this facility is a health and safety nightmare. The Biden administration is now presiding over the abuse of children. To end this abuse, the Biden administration must immediately shut down this facility.”
When he took questions Abbott was asked if he knew how many children had been abused.
“So we don’t know the total number of children abused,” he replied. “We are concerned that it could be more than one.”
He seemed to be saying that it also could be no more than one. He was then asked how he could call for the shelter to be shut and the children removed before the investigation was completed.
“I think the investigation needs to happen immediately,” he replied. “And definitely, if the allegations are confirmed, then they need to be moved.”
He proceeded to engage in a particularly twisted rationalization for making the allegations known so prematurely.
“And because I think the investigation should and can begin tonight, we may have answers as soon as tomorrow. And I know the Biden administration wouldn’t be able to move before then, which is why I’m making the ask tonight so the Biden administration can get ready to begin to move these children to a safer location.”
Abbott thanked the media for being there and moved away. A senior Bexar County official who had been standing silently off to the side stepped before the cameras to offer some truth. Rebeca Clay-Flores has visited the facility in her capacity as commissioner of Precinct 1. She is also there on weekends as one of the more than 900 volunteers who assist a considerable paid staff that includes pediatricians, educators, child care workers, and counselors.
Until Abbott’s press conference, Clay-Flores had heard not even rumors about sexual abuse at the shelter. She would be the first to say that any such allegations should be thoroughly investigated.
“I do trust officials who care about the children who will do due diligence,” she said.
But Clay-Flores could say now with certainty born of firsthand knowledge that other things Abbott said were simply not true.
“Fake news,” she later observed
First, regarding staffing, Clay-Flores attests that the children are divided into pods of 30 that are each overseen by at least one staffer or volunteer 24/7.
Second, regarding food, Clay-Flores further attests that a trio of caterers provides the children with three hot meals a day, along with two snacks.
Third, regarding COVID-19, she knows from her own experience that everyone in the facility has to be tested every three days. And any children who test positive are moved to a separate building with a separate staff, and quarantined there in accordance with CDC guidelines. And masks are required at all times, even when the kids are playing soccer.
“From what I saw when I went in there on several occasions, it was well-staffed, the children are very happy and very excited to be here,” Clay-Flores told the press in summary. “This is not a political issue.”
The question that Clay-Flores now posed before the news cameras was how Abbott could say that the shelter should be shut down as a “health and safety nightmare” when he had never bothered to see it for himself.
One of Abbott’s people apparently heard her.
On learning that Abbott had made an on-the-spot decision to take a tour inside, Clay-Flores figured she would join him. Abbott had not received a COVID-19 test there and Clay-Flores’ last one there had been more than three days before. They both had to wait for a negative result before being admitted.
“Me, being a good Texas girl, went up to him to introduce myself,” she later told The Daily Beast.
They chatted and Abbott told her that his wife is from San Antonio. Flores-Clay told the two-term governor that she had gone to Princeton and had only been in elective office for three months.
“Then he went on the tour and I went along,” Clay-Flores later said. “He was very gracious on the tour, very different demeanor than at the press conference.”
Abbott met the medical staff there from the CDC and was briefed on the shelter’s actual COVID-19 protocols. He also was set straight about the regular hot meals and snacks. He saw that the ample staff included caseworkers.
Abbott was wearing a mask. Clay-Flores always does when she is there. Everybody heeds the shelter’s face-covering rule, including her church group when it adds song and music to prayer and Bible study.
“We have our masks on while singing as well,” Clay-Flores said of her group.
Now, as Abbott’s tour continued, somebody must have told the children that the governor was visiting. The 800 boys all rose.
“The boys stood up and gave him a standing ovation,” Clay-Flores said.
She understood they were expressing respect. She was later asked by The Daily Beast if she thought the moment changed him.
“I would like to think so as a fellow human being,” she said.
An Abbott who had changed more profoundly than some surface graciousness would have reciprocated the respect. He would have understood that, as Clay-Flores later said, children should not be used for political purposes and do not choose what country they are from. He would have known, as she would add, that we as adults have a responsibility to give them what they need.
“Which is protection, food, shelter and a chance for education,” Clay-Flores would later note.
But Abbott was probably still just Abbott as he continued on his tour through the facility. He came back past the boys on his way out.
“They stood up and applauded him again,” Clay-Flores said.