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What is life like for detained migrant children? An inside look at a government shelter

Nearly 2,000 children were separated from their families after illegally crossing the border in April and May, according the the Department of Homeland Security. In Southern California, one of the more than hundred facilities that houses unaccompanied migrant children opened its doors to the media on Friday. Amna Nawaz talks with Jean Guerrero of KPBS about what she saw there.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said today that nearly 2,000 children were separated from their families after illegally crossing the border in April and may.

    What happens to these children afterwards has been a subject of ongoing debate.

    Amna Nawaz reports.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Last year, more than 40,000 unaccompanied immigrant children were housed in shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services, a network of more than 100 facilities in 17 states. Children now spend an average of 56 days in these shelters.

    One of those facilities is Casa San Diego in Southern California, which houses 65 kids at a time and opened its doors to media today.

    Jean Guerrero of PBS member station KPBS was there, and joins me now.

    Jean, there's obviously a lot of interest about these shelters, about these facilities around the conversation of family separation. Tell us what you saw inside the facility and how you were able to get inside in the first place.

  • Jean Guerrero:


    So, as you mentioned, this is one of the smaller shelters, about 65. It's an all-boys shelter. And what we saw — basically, we got to see the children engaged in a variety of different activities, in classrooms reading. Some of them were just very silently reading.

    We also got to go outside and watch them playing soccer. So just a variety of different activities showing the kinds of things that they do at the shelter, but it was a process to be able to go on this tour. As you mentioned, it was a very rare look inside of these children's — Department of Health and Human Services rarely opens up these shelters to the media, because they want to protect the privacy of the children.

    So in order to participate in the tour, we had to agree that we wouldn't be doing any kind of video recording, any kind of audio recording, no recording whatsoever. We weren't allowed to speak to the children, so I couldn't interview any of this children to get their firsthand experience of what it's like to live at these shelters.

    So even though we got to see them engaged in a variety of activities, it did seem like they were having a good time, like it was a real learning environment, we couldn't engage with them directly to get their experience.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I should point out the pictures that we're seeing were handed out to us, taken by the facility, and provided to members of the media, since you weren't able to take your own pictures. Very strict rules that they set forward before you can go in.

  • Jean Guerrero:

    That's right.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    No phones or recording devices. You have to stay with the tour group at all time. No interviews with staff or children unless arranged in advance.

    What do we know about what the kids do day to day? How do they spend those days inside these shelters?

  • Jean Guerrero:


    So they get about two hours of — they get two hours of recreational activity. One hour is structured. The other is unstructured. They can do pretty much whatever they want. They have six hours of educational activities, so some of the classroom stuff that we saw.

    And they do — one of the things I found really interesting is they're able to make two phone calls a week, 10-minute-long phone calls, supervised phone calls.

    And I just thought that was interesting, given the fact a lot — an increasing number of these children are children who have been separated from their families under the new zero tolerance policy and the family separation practice that we're seeing under the Trump administration.

    So the shelter didn't provide any details as to how much an increase they have seen in children who are coming in who are separated from families, but they did indicate that about 10 percent of the people — of the boys who were currently at the shelter were separated from their families.

    And the age range was about 6 to 17, and the average stay was consistent with the other shelters, about 50 days total.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Jean, we know now there are some government numbers we can share about all the children in custody, the unaccompanied immigrant children.

    As you mentioned, they fall in that age range. The kids from fiscal year 2017, the government has said half of them were over the age of 14, also meaning half were under the age of 14. Two-thirds were boys; 95 percent were from three countries, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

    Do you know any more about the kids in this facility?

  • Jean Guerrero:

    Yes, so we were speaking — we got a chance to speak to a lot of the different staff members at the shelter.

    And one of them was won't lead clinician, who talked about how these children are coming from Central America, in many cases fleeing violence and showing symptoms of trauma. He didn't provide any details, but he did mention that some of the trauma that they are witnessing in these children comes from the family separation issue.

    And so they provide meetings with clinicians who do mental health evaluations immediately upon the arrival of the children, and then they also do ongoing meetings with psychologists individually once a week and group settings another — also once a week.

    So, really, it was about trying to bring transparency to the process and what's going on at these shelters, trying to show us what the kids' lives are like. But it was pretty difficult to really get a sense of it, given the fact that we weren't able to speak with the children directly, even off the record.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    A brief, but fascinating look inside one of these shelters.

    Jean Guerrero from our member station KPBS, thanks for your time.

  • Jean Guerrero:

    Thank you.

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