HOUSTON — A nonprofit sued the city of Houston on Friday, alleging officials are obstructing its efforts to open a facility in the city to house unaccompanied immigrant children as part of an "improper political exercise" that's "motivated by hostility" toward federal immigration law.
Austin-based Southwest Key Programs claimed the city improperly invalidated previously issued permits that would have allowed it to open the facility, which was set to house more than 200 unaccompanied minors.
The nonprofit also alleged the city is incorrectly designating the shelter as detention and not a residential facility, which means significant structural changes to the building and "enormous amounts of additional paperwork" for approval "which, as the city has clearly demonstrated, will never be forthcoming."
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and other local community leaders have been vocal about their opposition to the facility, which would be located in a building that had previously been used as a homeless shelter and a temporary shelter for Hurricane Harvey evacuees.
When it was first announced in June, the facility was set to house children who had been separated from their parents after illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. The Trump administration's policy of separating children from their parents has since been stopped.
In a statement Friday, Turner said the city will continue to enforce all building codes and regulations related to the safety and well-being of children.
"Southwest Key has repeatedly been asked to provide plans that meet existing building codes for the intended use of the facility," Turner said. "They have failed to do so. Hopefully they will realize that they are not exempt and must follow the rules like everyone else."
Southwest Key operates 26 shelters in the United States, providing housing to about 23,000 immigrant children, most of them from Central America.
In its lawsuit, Southwest Key alleged the city is improperly interfering with the federal government's duty, via a contractor, to care for unaccompanied children. It also accused Houston of discriminating against unaccompanied immigrant children through its actions.
The city's actions have prevented Southwest Key from getting a state license to run the facility and the nonprofit is now in danger of losing its federal contract to run it, the lawsuit alleged.
Southwest Key is asking for $8.6 million in damages and court orders that would require the city to not designate the shelter as a detention facility, eliminating the need for new permits.