PHOENIX — The federal government is scrambling to house a surge of unaccompanied Central American children and teenagers apprehended crossing the border illegally, many in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley.
Obama administration officials said Monday federal agencies are requesting more than $2 billion from Congress to pay for more shelters.
Unaccompanied migrants under the age of 18 are only supposed to be held in Department of Homeland Security facilities for fewer than 72 hours before they’re transferred to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services. They are supposed to be housed in shelters run by that agency’s Office of Refugee Resettlement.
But a shortage of space in those shelters means the children have been languishing in facilities that are not equipped for them.
In the last eight months, border agents made more than 47,000 child apprehensions. That is more than a 90 percent increase from the same time period last year.
Many of these young migrants are fleeing violence and gangs in Central America. Some have heard rumors that U.S. immigration policy is lenient for children who cross alone.
The Obama administration has called this an “urgent humanitarian situation requiring a unified and coordinated federal response.”
Back in late May, before this issue became known publicly as a presidential priority, a 24-year-old Honduran migrant named Marleny Bueso Ponce was detained in a Border Patrol station in Arizona. There she met a boy who had been caught at the border without his parents.
“He was crying that he wanted to phone his mother, to tell her that he loved her, that he missed her,” Bueso Ponce said.
Bueso Ponce and her own child were paroled after a couple days, as has been typical for families apprehended at the border. But she says the boy stayed behind at the holding cell when she left.
She says the boy told her he’d already been held there for 11 days.
That would be a violation of a federal statute that says unaccompanied children must be transferred out of such DHS facilities within 72 hours.
Bueso Ponce’s account of the boy’s story can’t be verified. But Obama administration officials say cases like this one are happening. On Monday they acknowledged on a press call that migrant children have been held in short-term DHS facilities for longer than three days.
The officials spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity.
“Border Patrol stations were not designed for any kind of long-term custody,” said Michelle Brané of the Women’s Refugee Commission in Washington, D.C. “They are completely ill-equipped to deal with anybody long-term, and they are particularly inappropriate for children to be in for any length of time.”
Brané said such facilities have no showers, beds or recreation areas.
“And not having a shower, for example, we have been hearing kids have been in facilities for up to two weeks,” Brané said. “That is a very long time to be in the same clothes you have traveled in and crossed rivers in.”
As the number of unaccompanied children crossing the border has surged, there hasn’t been enough space for them in HHS shelters. The federal government has been trying to set up more, but Brané says that doesn’t happen overnight.
“You need to find beds quickly but you also want them to safe,” Brané said. “So that is where I think this bottleneck is coming. Places need to be licensed. They need to have the appropriate staff caring for them. They need to have protection mechanisms for the children.”
Obama administration officials said, HHS is requesting an additional $2 million from Congress for this effort. DHS is also requesting an additional $160 million.
In the meantime, the federal government has been setting up emergency housing for child migrants on military bases in California, Texas and Oklahoma.
Over the weekend, federal officials started adding showers and other amenities at a processing center in Nogales, Arizona. It will serve as a way-station for up to 1,500 children at a time, before they’re transferred to more permanent sites.
Tony Banegas, the honorary Honduran consul in Arizona, visited the Nogales site over the weekend. Many of the children there had been flown in from South Texas, where they were apprehended.
Banegas said the conditions there were still a work in progress.
“They need mattresses, they need toothpaste,” Banegas said. “Better food, warm food.”
Banegas said he is grateful for the effort federal agents are making. But he says it is still very difficult for the children who are housed there.
“Some are young and they miss their family, they don’t know what is going to happen,” he said. “It’s scary.”
Eventually these children will be transferred to a shelter, and then may be reunited with family members or placed in foster care.
They’re still in deportation proceedings, though. So they’ll either be ordered to return to their home countries, or win the right to stay in the U.S.
Obama administration officials said they had planned for an increase in unaccompanied migrant children this year, but were caught by surprise by the size of the increase.
Central American women caught crossing the border with children are also overwhelming federal facilities in South Texas. Community shelters and churches in El Paso are helping to house these families after they are released from border facilities.
This story was reported by the Fronteras: Changing Americas Desk, a multimedia collaboration among seven public radio stations. It is led by KJZZ in Phoenix and KPBS in San Diego and funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as part of its Local Journalism Center initiative.