NOGALES, Ariz. — Officials are working to improve conditions at a makeshift holding center in southern Arizona where immigration authorities are housing hundreds of unaccompanied Central American minors.
A federal official said that mattresses, portable toilets and showers were brought in Saturday for 700 of the youthful migrants who spent the night sleeping on plastic cots inside the Nogales area center.
The Homeland Security official told The Associated Press that about 2,000 mattresses had been ordered for the center – a warehouse that has not been used to shelter people in years.
With the center lacking some of the basics, federal officials have asked Arizona to immediately ship medical supplies, Gov. Jan Brewer’s spokesman Andrew Wilder said.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security started flying immigrants in the country illegally to Arizona from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas last month after the number of immigrants – including more than 48,000 children traveling on their own – overwhelmed the Border Patrol there.
Immigrant families were flown from Texas, released in Arizona, and told to report to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office near where they were traveling within 15 days. ICE has said the immigrants were mostly families from Central America fleeing extreme poverty and violence.
The Homeland Security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because there was no authorization to discuss the matter publicly, said the holding center opened for unaccompanied migrant children because the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had nowhere to turn.
The Homeland Security official said the number of children at the warehouse was expected to double to around 1,400. The warehouse has a capacity of about 1,500.
The Arizona Daily Star reported Saturday that Jimena Díaz, consul general of Guatemala in Phoenix, visited the center Friday and said there were about 250 children from Guatemala, with the rest coming from El Salvador and Honduras.
Diaz told the newspaper that the children are being kept in separate groups, divided by age and gender. Most of them are between 15 and 17, Diaz said, with a few much younger than that. Teenage mothers with their children also are being detained separately, he said.
Immigration officials can immediately return Mexican immigrants to the border, but they are much more hard-pressed to deal with Central American migrants. The Homeland Security official said that legally, only their parents or guardians can take custody if the government makes the children eligible for release.
Officials in Central America and Mexico have noticed a recent increase in women and children crossing the border. Father Heyman Vazquez, the director of a migrant shelter in Huixtla in the southern Mexico state of Chiapas, said he and others advise children that it’s too dangerous.
Yet Vazquez is seeing more and more youths heading north.
“I remember a little boy of 9 years old and I asked if he was going to go meet someone and he told me `No, I’m just going hand myself over because I hear they help kids,' “ Vazquez said.
How big is this problem?
Illegal border crossings soared for several years in South Texas, which recently surpassed Arizona as the busiest corridor. The Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector made 148,017 arrests from Oct. 1 to May 17, far higher than the 62,876 caught in Tucson, Arizona, which is the second-busiest crossing point.
The dramatic shift is taxing U.S. authorities because Hondurans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans make up about 75 percent of those caught in South Texas, the traditional entry point for Central Americans. For decades, the vast majority of people who crossed the border illegally were from neighboring Mexico and could be deported the same day on a short bus ride to the nearest crossing. Central Americans are sent home on U.S. government flights, a more daunting challenge.
An unusually large number of those crossing in South Texas are unaccompanied children, many seeking to join parents who are already in the U.S. illegally. Authorities arrested 47,017 unaccompanied children on the border from October through May, up 92 percent from the same period a year earlier. A draft Border Patrol memorandum estimates that number could reach 90,000 in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, up from a previous government estimate of 60,000.
Why is this happening now?
Rampant crime and poverty across Central America is a big reason. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, with 90.4 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. The World Bank says nearly 60 percent of Honduras’ 8 million people live in poverty.
Some Republican lawmakers and administration critics say lax enforcement practices encourage children to make the perilous journey. They cite an opinion by U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen of Brownsville, Texas, in December that blasted authorities for releasing a Salvadoran girl to her mother, who hired a smuggler to transport her daughter and was in the country illegally.
“(The government) has simply chosen not to enforce the United States’ border security laws,” the judge wrote.
The government has released some immigrants but refused to say how many. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency says it will make “appropriate custody determinations.”
What is the government doing about it?
The Obama administration has asked Congress for $1.4 billion to help house, feed and transport children and plans to temporarily house more than 1,000 at military bases in Ventura, California; San Antonio, Texas; and Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
Immigration officials, by policy, do not keep children in detention. They are transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement to be housed in shelters until they can be reunited with parents or guardians.
A Homeland Security official said Health and Human Services turned to the Border Patrol to house children temporarily at the Nogales warehouse because they were overwhelmed. About 2,000 vinyl-covered mattresses were ordered, and the official expected the population there to double to 1,400.
The government has also been flying families from South Texas to Arizona and El Paso, Texas, and releasing them at bus stations. ICE has only one detention facility for families – an 85-bed center in Pennsylvania.