NOGALES, Ariz. — Imagine running a high-security day care at a Costco, and you have a pretty good idea of the scenario unfolding along the Arizona border.
During the first media tour Wednesday of the U.S. Border Patrol processing facility, at least 100 children were doing what children normally do: playing basketball with border agents, watching World Cup soccer, resting on mats with Mylar blankets, talking in groups. But mainly waiting.
For what? It’s unclear. The Border Patrol has set up 40 telephones at the giant air-conditioned warehouse in order to contact the children’s relatives, but the unaccompanied minors who spilled over the border in the past year weren’t lost.
They came to stay, but officials stressed Wednesday that the Nogales processing center is only temporary. From there, children are sent to private shelters or temporary housing at military bases in California, Oklahoma and Texas, but even those facilities are filling up.
At least 90,000 children, mostly from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, will be caught this year, and more than 140,000 will be apprehended in 2015, according to an internal U.S. Customs and Border Protection memo.
President Obama has called the influx an “urgent humanitarian situation,” but the government was forced to halt plans to relocate some of the border crossers to Maryland and Virginia after those plans met with local resistance.
Under law, the Homeland Security Department can hold the children for only three days and then must turn them over to the Health and Human Services Department, which is supposed to house them until they can be placed with relatives or foster families as they await court rulings on whether they will be deported.
Immigrant rights groups have complained about conditions at the detention facilities, and several have filed complaints detailing more than 100 cases of physical or verbal abuse, or negligence toward the children’s needs.
“We have instances where CBP shackled 13- and 14-year-olds, infants became sick while held in cells maintained at freezing temperatures, and many children were held in CBP custody beyond the legal 72-hour period, without food or blankets,” said Erika Pinheiro, directing attorney for community education programs at the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project.
Community groups and press organizations sought access to the facilities, but those requests generally were denied until Wednesday, when media were given brief tours of detention centers in Brownsville, Texas, and in Nogales, 4 miles north of the border.
At the Arizona site, U.S. Border Patrol and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have managed to pull together a reasonably comfortable but tightly structured program for the children.
One top Border Patrol agent — they asked that their names not be used — said the priorities are to keep the children safe, healthy, nourished and clean.
On those scores, the agency appears to be succeeding at the 120,000-square-foot facility, though an Associated Press account of a parallel facility at Fort Brown in Brownsville wrote of “children’s faces pressed against glass,” and “the pungent odor that comes with keeping people in close quarters.”
When they arrive, children go through an intake process in which they are given health screenings, including vaccinations. They turn over personal items, which are bagged and returned to them when they leave.
Reporters in Nogales and in Brownsville were ordered, upon pain of expulsion from the tour, not to speak to the children in order to protect their privacy.