In a 120,000-square-foot warehouse on the edge of this desert city, Border Patrol agents line up hundreds of children who may have never seen a doctor for basic vaccinations and other medical care, hand out snacks or join them for a game of basketball under a circuslike tent that doubles as a recreation room.
In a makeshift processing center, the children — all minors caught crossing the border in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas without parents — are housed for as many as three days or more in nine holding pens: boys are separated from girls and older children from younger ones; teenage mothers and their babies stay in a cell of their own.
There is barely room to walk; mattresses line the concrete floor, which also has long bleachers bolted to it. The children are being transferred here from Texas because a similar site there cannot take any more.
Customs and Border Protection officials said Wednesday that 900 children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras were being held here — the newest arrivals still in the clothes they wore on their trek to the United States, the others clad in white T-shirts and blue shorts, as in a reformatory. On one mattress, a girl barely in her teens wept, her face buried in a soiled stuffed lamb. Nearby, a toddler smiled as she held the hand of a Border Patrol agent taking her for a walk.
As detainees, none of the children are allowed to go outside except to exercise for 45 minutes to an hour a day.
Chief Manuel Padilla Jr., the agent in charge of the Tucson sector of the Border Patrol, said that the agency’s goal was to keep the children safe, healthy, nourished and clean, and that a lot had been done “to achieve these priorities,” sometimes in small ways.
When agents noticed that the children were refusing their breakfast burritos, which were made with flour tortillas, the kitchen switched to corn tortillas, like the ones used in Central America.
On Wednesday, the Border Patrol gave reporters a first glimpse of this processing center as well as a similar one in Brownsville, Tex., both focal points in the national debate over the sudden stream of unaccompanied minors crossing illegally into the United States. From here, the children will be sent to juvenile detention facilities around the country, where efforts will be made to release them to relatives in the United States on the condition that they cooperate with deportation proceedings.
But the swelling number of arriving youths — many of them making perilous journeys to flee gang violence in their native countries — has presented the Obama administration with political and humanitarian predicaments, and started to dominate the nation’s conversation over immigration reform.
SOURCE: FERNANDA SANTOS
The New York Times