SuperTalk Mississippi News

‘We’re not prepared’: Hyde-Smith objects to abandoned Tunica hotel being used to house migrant youth

By Caleb Salers

U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith is speaking out against a proposal to use a vacant casino hotel property in north Mississippi as a shelter for unaccompanied migrant children.

Last week, talks of plans to turn the Harrah’s Casino Complex in Tunica into an influx care facility (ICF) through the federal government’s Office of Refugee Resettlement caught the attention of both the public and lawmakers.

Hyde-Smith, in pursuit of answers after being swarmed with phone calls and emails from concerned Mississippians, reached out to Jeffrey Hild, the assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families.

Hild informed Hyde-Smith that a competitive task order was sent out to vendors that have existing contracts with the U.S. Department of Interior seeking requests for proposals to establish a new ICF to house roughly 2,000 migrants between the ages of 4-17. A private entity quickly conveyed interest in converting the 1,356-bedroom Tunica hotel, which has been empty since 2014, into a center to facilitate the minors.

The Republican senator said she was also alerted that Democratic Congressman Bennie Thompson was behind the move to repurpose the casino hotel — a sentiment parroted by Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson.

“As I understand it, 17 states are up for consideration. One of our congressmen is working hard to land the contract for his cronies,” Watson wrote on social media. “The people of Tunica deserve better than their own member of congress trying to benefit from something the community vehemently opposes.”

According to Hyde-Smith, the company working in cahoots with Thompson is Dynamic Construction Group, a company based out of Baton Rouge, La. If an ICF happened to be approved in Tunica, the organization would receive around $150 per occupant from the federal government daily, which could equal out to as much as $300,000 per day. 

While Dynamic Construction Group has yet to confirm or deny that they have attempted to purchase the Harrah’s lot and submit a request for proposal to turn the property into an ICF, Thompson’s press secretary sent the following quote to SuperTalk Mississippi News:

“The Congressman is aware of the interest in the casino properties. However, the responsibility lies with Immigration and Customs.”

Thompson’s office neither confirmed nor denied any involvement in the process. Thompson serves on the House Committee on Homeland Security, which oversees the U.S. Department of Homeland Security — the agency responsible for acquiring undocumented migrant children and placing them into designated facilities.

Nonetheless, any facility housing minors would have to meet strict federal guidelines, per Hild. Regulations include that the ICF would have to be near an airport (the Memphis, Tenn. airport is 34 miles away), fully maintained, and consist of adequate bilingual staff as well as caretakers for the occupants.

Hild told Hyde-Smith that the youth would be facilitated in the shelter for roughly one month but there would be a continuous flow of migrants entering and exiting the facility with the total number of occupants remaining around 2,000.

“I was explaining to [Hild] about Tunica County that we just were not prepared for this in my opinion, that we did not have the bilingual staff that he was looking for, and the surrounding services this would affect in DeSoto and Tunica counties like medical care and law enforcement. What if the place catches on fire? Where is the nearest fire department?” Hyde-Smith said on The Gallo Show. “It would take so long to even get this facility up to date.”

Local law enforcement in the area also echoed the senator’s concerns. The Tunica County Sheriff’s Office issued the following statement detailing why the department deems it a public safety concern to house thousands of children in one of the poorest regions of the country:

“We do not have the adequate resources to support or accommodate the Immigrants Initiative. When it concerns public safety, public healthcare, along with child protective services; Tunica County does not have a local hospital in the event of an emergency. We have to transport our patients to area hospitals located in Desoto County, Tate County, Clarksdale, and Memphis, Tennessee.”

The goal of the ICFs is to have unaccompanied migrants placed in a safe shelter until they can be united with vetted family members or other sponsors in the U.S. as quickly and safely as possible.

Hyde-Smith argued that the issue of migrant children being displaced en masse is a result of President Joe Biden’s failure to secure the southern border between the U.S. and Mexico. She does not find it to be Mississippi’s responsibility to facilitate the youth and believes it would be best for them to return to their original countries.

“This situation is ripe for exploitation and abuse. These children are in a tough enough situation as it is. It’s just like herding them through and hoping to get them to a family member. The reality is that there are probably not a lot of family members. They need to be reunited in their home countries rather than be made to stay in a shelter in Tunica, Mississippi,” Hyde-Smith continued.

“We’re not prepared. It is an inadequate facility for children. I hope that these children are taken care of in a proper way, of course, but in a proper way that I don’t believe Mississippi is prepared to provide.”

There are currently 289 ICFs in 29 states. No formal plans to bring undocumented minors to the facility have been approved by the Tunica County Board of Supervisors or released to the public at this time.