BROWNSVILLE, Texas — Children’s faces pressed against glass. Hundreds of young boys and girls covered with aluminum foil-like blankets next to chain-link fences. The pungent odour that comes with keeping dirty travellers in close quarters.
These were the sights from a Wednesday tour of a crowded Border Patrol station in South Texas where thousands of immigrants are being held before they are transferred to other shelters around the country.
It was the first time the media was given access to the facility since President Barack Obama called the more than 47,000 unaccompanied children who have entered the country illegally this budget year an “urgent humanitarian situation.”
Border Patrol stations like the one in Brownsville were not meant for long-term custody. Immigrants are supposed to wait there until they are processed and taken to detention centres. But the surge in children arriving without their parents has overwhelmed the U.S. government.
The surge, which has been building for three years, comes amid a steep overall increase in immigrant arrests in southernmost Texas.
The children are mostly from Central America. They pose a particular challenge because the law requires Customs and Border Protection to transfer them to the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours. That agency’s network of some 100 shelters around the country has been over capacity for months and is now caring for more than 7,600 children.
Children began backing up in already overcrowded Border Patrol stations. Eventually, the Border Patrol began flying them to Arizona, where it set up a massive processing centre in the border city of Nogales. Reporters in Arizona were also given a tour of the facility in Nogales. From there, they are sent to private shelters or temporary housing at barracks on military bases in California, Texas and Oklahoma.
But the children at Fort Brown remain in the custody of an agency ill-equipped to care for them. On Wednesday, dozens of young boys were divided from dozens of young girls. Mothers with children still younger were in another cell.
Happier faces could be found in a side yard just outside the station. There, young children colored pictures under a camouflage tent.
A group of about a dozen girls of perhaps 5 or 6 sat under another tent outside the shower trailer, dark hair wet and shiny.
Women wearing blue gloves combed each girl’s hair. Tables held stacks of clean bluejeans, T-shirts and toiletries.
Deeper into the yard, teen girls kicked a soccer ball and tossed a football with workers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
In Nogales, Arizona, girls playing soccer with two male border agents shrieked when their ball crossed over the chain link fence and away from the small recreational area covered by a white tent. Others playing basketball cheered on their teammates.
But inside, the approximately 1,000 children in the clean, 120,000-square-foot (11,000-square-meter) warehouse were silent.
In a roomy area with teenage boys, a large, high-definition TV playing the World Cup went largely ignored.
A small group of boys in that fenced-in area played soccer. But most lay on tiny mattresses and covered themselves with thin, heat-reflective blankets that look like aluminum foil.
Fifteen-feet-high chain link fences topped with barbed wire separate the children by age and gender.
Federal agents said they could not provide an estimate of the number of minors at the facility because the figure is fluid as children transition in and out.
Authorities in Nogales have struggled to adjust to their new role as temporary caretakers.
For example, it took a few days of children rejecting breakfast burritos before agents learned that Central Americans aren’t accustomed to flour tortillas. FEMA renegotiated its contract with a food vendor to begin receiving corn tortillas instead.
The children are fed three times a day and take turns by group to use the 200-seat dining area.