Towering over a cotton field ready for picking are the giant tents located right beside a border crossing used for salvage cars arriving in Mexico. Any outsiders would never know that those tents serve as temporary shelters for migrant children.
On Friday, Oct. 12, reporters were granted access inside the facility. When it first opened in June, it was home to 400 teenage boys. Then, as of last month, it housed 3,800 cots—advancing it to the largest shelter for children who cross the border alone. Upon entering the building, reporters were ordered to put away any technology capable of recording information.
“No photos, no recording on the inside,” said the government official. “If anybody tries to sneak something … we’ll probably ask you to leave.”
The layout of the housing facility is shaped like an “L” with two separate wings for both girls and boys. Music is on a constant loop in the dining hall as staff maneuver through the walkways with four-wheeled utility vehicles. Its setup is comparable to a mini city with independent ambulances, firefighters, an urgent care clinic and a sanitation team. The children, ages 13 through 17, attend daily academic classes, and tests show that most have the education of second to fourth graders.
Sleeping arrangements are fairly simple. Bunk beds are housed within the giant tents accompanied by air conditioners. Small spider webs and paper flowers are placed strategically as decoration for Halloween. The kids also have journals that they can write in before bed time and a counselor is made available to them daily. The facility is ran by BCFS, a nonprofit government contractor that specializes in emergency response worldwide.
An increase in the need of more space for beds has become synonymous with longer stays in the temporary shelter. Current residents have already spent an average of 59 days, as stated by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The length of stays has doubled since the last data recording last year and is causing the 100 federally funded shelters nationwide to bust at the seams.
“We now have the largest number of children in shelter in the history of the program,” said Mark Greenberg, who worked in the Department of Health and Human Services under the Obama administration. He currently helps oversee the migrant child program. “But it’s not because arrivals are at a historic high, it’s because it is taking much longer for children to be released from the shelter system.”
The influx in extended stays is due to what Greenberg believes is the relatives reluctance to claim the children. Any information the HHS gathers about the relatives is shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and has been used to arrest an upwards of at least 40 undocumented relatives. However, spokesman for HHS, Mark Weber, denies that the relatives are fearful to claim the children.
It’s recorded that temporary shelters are much riskier than permanent shelters. As they are held more loosely to state regulation due to fast establishments. They also cost three times as much.