At least 1,000 unaccompanied children who crossed illegally into the United States through Texas are being taken to a makeshift emergency shelter in Arizona over the weekend, the latest effort by authorities to handle what has been described as a humanitarian crisis.
Although unaccompanied children have been entering the U.S. through the Southwest border for years, a surge in the last few months has overloaded Border Patrol stations and detention facilities,
particularly in Texas. Most of the children are from Central America, a region long plagued with poverty and now grappling with escalating drug cartel and gang violence.
On Saturday alone, 367 children were taken from south Texas to a processing center run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Nogales, Ariz., Andrew Wilder, spokesman for Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, said.
Just the day before, 432 unaccompanied minors were taken to the same facility, and 367 more are expected on Sunday, Wilder said federal officials told the governor’s office.
“We fully expect this crisis to continue because there is no solution to fix it,” Wilder said.
Though overall illegal immigration has decreased in the last few years along the Southwest border, waves of unaccompanied children and parents with children have challenged immigration officials who said they don't have proper infrastructure in that region to detain these particular groups.
Brewer blasted the transfers and, in a letter to President Obama, complained that she learned of the operation through the media, not from his administration.
She has still to hear back from Obama, Wilder said. Friday, she issued a statement about the additional influx of unaccompanied children to Nogales.
“I am disturbed and outraged that President Obama’s administration continues to implement this dangerous and inhumane policy, meanwhile neglecting to answer crucial questions our citizens demand and deserve,” Brewer said.
She continued: "This is a crisis of the federal government’s creation, and the fact that the border remains unsecure -- now apparently intentionally -- while this operation continues full-steam ahead is deplorable.”
The children will not stay in Arizona, however.
The Nogales shelter is supposed to serve as a way station for children traveling alone when they illegally cross the border, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials said in a prepared statement.
The facility — equipped with portable toilets and washing facilities — can house up to 1,500 children, officials said. The surge is so overwhelming that federal officials have had to tap into emergency medical supplies held by the state — but paid for by the U.S. government — to meet the demands at the Nogales center, Wilder said.
While in Nogales, the children are given medical screenings and are vaccinated. Also, officials have ordered additional bedding, shower and laundry facilities. Federal officials have also contracted with vendors to provide hot meals instead of boxed lunches. FEMA will provide counseling services and recreational activities, customs officials said.
A FEMA administrator was also expected to arrive in Nogales on Saturday to oversee the facility. There are also plans underway to open up a more permanent facility in Tucson for unaccompanied minors — about 70 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, immigration advocates and Guatemalan Consul officials said.
Laurie Melrood, an immigrant rights advocate and social worker, called the situation a “catastrophe” and worried about whether the children would be cordoned off from organizations that have traditionally helped in such situations.
Meanwhile, Border Patrol officials have also been overwhelmed by another unprecedented surge, this one of single parents with children who are crossing illegally into the U.S.
The influx was fueled by a rumor running through Central America that parents with children would be allowed to stay in the United States indefinitely. Some migrants have expressed surprise when told they might still be deported.
The surge of families hit a peak over Memorial Day weekend, when federal officials flew at least 400 migrants in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas to Tucson to be processed by customs and Border Patrol officials in Arizona.
From there, many were dropped off at bus stations with orders to appear before immigration authorities within 15 days because immigration officials didn’t have the ability to accommodate the unexpected numbers of families. Most of these families are making their way to relatives in cities across the nation, where they are supposed to meet with deportation officers, ICE said.
Only unaccompanied children are being housed in Nogales, where they are supposed to stay for up to 72 hours before they are sent to more permanent facilities at military installations in California, Texas and Oklahoma. They are supposed to be housed for an average of 120 days at those centers.
“But clearly, in all likelihood these long-term detention facilities may turn out to be extremely long-term,” Wilder said. “It’s just jaw-dropping.”