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 scrambling to handle what has been described as a humanitarian crisis.
Though overall illegal immigration has declined in recent years, two waves — one of unaccompanied children, another of parents with children — have presented a challenge for officials who say they don’t have the facilities in the Southwest to detain these groups.
The presence of unaccompanied migrant children is not new, but the surge in recent months has overloaded Border Patrol stations and detention facilities, particularly in Texas. Most of the children come from Central America, a region long plagued with poverty but now having to grapple with escalating drug cartel and gang violence.
On Saturday alone, 367 children were taken from 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 Saturday.
A day before, 432 unaccompanied minors were taken to the same facility and another 367 are expected Sunday. “We fully expect this crisis to continue because there is no solution to fix it,” Wilder said.
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 yet to hear back from Obama, Wilder said.
In a statement Friday, the Republican governor said: “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 unaccompanied children housed in Nogales are supposed to stay for up to 72 hours before they are sent to longer-term facilities at military installations in California, Texas and Oklahoma.
Last week, immigration officials gave reporters a tour of the shelter at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. The 1,015 youths at the facility range in age from 12 to 17. Among them was a boy who appeared to be on the younger side, with spiky black hair and a red T-shirt.
He listened as a caseworker, her laptop propped on the table between them, explained that she would help with his paperwork. The government would attempt to place him with relatives or an approved sponsor while his case made its way through immigration court.
“You have to be patient,” she said.
The shelter first opened two years ago to cope with an earlier surge of immigrant minors. The facility closed after two months as officials found ways to more quickly place youths. But two weeks ago, overwhelmed again by a new surge of unaccompanied minors, officials reopened the shelter.
It’s already approaching its capacity of 1,200. Another shelter, capable of housing 600 youths, opened Friday at Port Hueneme in California.
Immigrant advocates say they understand that the government is pressed to house young migrants, and that the shelters are stopgap measures. But they fear the youths may languish in the institutional settings.
The young migrants’ ranks have tripled in five years, and could reach a new high of 60,000 this year — and more than double that the following year. By then, the costs of shelters and resettlement could reach $2.28 billion.
Last week, the president directed the heads of the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency to join in an interagency Unified Coordination Group to address the growing numbers of unaccompanied young migrants. Administration officials characterized the trend as an “urgent humanitarian situation.”
At Lackland, the spiky-haired boy’s identity and origins, like scores of others, remained a mystery.
Before he arrived at Lackland, he was screened for potential mental health issues, vaccinated and checked for lice and scabies. Once here, he was assigned to a 60-bed dorm. Each bed comes with a gray metal locker that occupants attempt to personalize with drawings, paper lanterns and flowers.
Judith Elena Mendez Rivera wrote her name on a sign attached to her bed, No. 46, along with “El Salvador” and “100% Guanaca,” slang for Salvadoran.
“God is always with us in the good and the bad,” said another handwritten sign nearby.
“Listen God,” a third homemade sign exhorted in Spanish, “and let this torment end soon.”
It’s not clear how quickly youth at the shelter will be released to be placed with relatives and sponsors. Jesus Garcia, the federal Health and Human Services official leading the shelter tour Thursday, said youth are only released to “vetted family or sponsors.”
Maria Woltjen, director of the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights in Chicago, says she worries that the youths will miss out on the legal assistance, counseling and care they need.
“For the ones fleeing violence, who have been harmed or legitimately fear harm in their home country, how will we know?” she said. “Those kids will fall through the cracks.”
On Friday, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. announced the start of a new effort, coordinated with the AmeriCorps community service program, to provide about 100 lawyers and paralegals to immigrant children.
Carcamo reported from Tucson and Hennessy-Fiske from San Antonio.