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Life inside a children’s warehouse: Border agents watch over illegals in limbo

Entertainment: Girls watch a World Cup soccer match on television from their holding area in Nogales, Arizona. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has processed more than 47,000 unaccompanied children, mostly from Central America, who have entered the country. (Associated Press photographs)Entertainment: Girls watch a World Cup soccer match on television from their holding area in Nogales, Arizona. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has processed more than 47,000 unaccompanied children, mostly from Central America, who have entered the country. (Associated Press photographs)
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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.

The children are separated by sex and are placed in three age groups: 12 and younger, 13 to 15, and 16 to 17. A separate section holds young women with infants as well as older girls with very young brothers or sisters.

Nobody's entirely sure how old the children are. They self-identify, but a few boys seen on the tour had healthy growths of facial hair.

The groups are separated by chain-link fencing topped with hurricane barbed wire. Army green and yellow tarps have been hooked up to the fences in some areas to give the girls and boys some privacy. The floors are spread with mats and a few tables.

Why the barbed wire? Officials said it's a relic from when the facility, which was built in 2000, housed adults.

FEMA brought in five white trailers with 60 shower facilities, where the children are brought in groups on rotations and given towels, disposable toothbrushes and soap.

Boxes of clothes include newly purchased underwear and what appears to be used but clean clothing. In one section, most of the boys 13 to 15 were wearing white T-shirts and navy blue shorts, but no dress code was evident in the other groups.

Each group goes outside every day for recreation under a white tent set up on concrete. On Wednesday, a group of older girls played soccer with a female agent as other agents cheered. Several agents shot baskets with the girls under the tent, while other girls tossed around a tennis ball.

The groups of children are rotated through the dining area for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and they also get an afternoon cracker snack. Breakfast usually includes a breakfast burrito; lunch is often rice, beans, chicken and vegetables, and dinner is similar.

One thing the Border Patrol has learned is that Central American children generally aren't big flour eaters, so flour tortillas have been replaced with corn tortillas. Milk is available on request, but most children prefer water.

To ensure safety, agents sweep the fenced-in areas while the children are showering, eating or outside playing. They have found a few pieces of metal in the boys' area, and lipstick and nail polish in the girls' section.

The children don't look unhappy — maybe a little bored — and some waved at reporters as they passed.

Officials did not offer an estimate of the number of children held at the Nogales facility, saying the number changes regularly as new arrivals are processed and others leave.

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