US plans child migrant processing center in Texas
McALLEN, Texas (AP) — The U.S. government plans to turn an empty 55,000-square-foot (5,100-square-meter) warehouse in South Texas into a processing facility for unaccompanied children who have entered the country illegally, according to construction permits obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request Monday.
The permits reveal plans for four fence-enclosed pods inside a corrugated steel warehouse in McAllen that could eventually accommodate about 1,000 children. The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.
More than 52,000 unaccompanied minors have been arrested since October after entering the United States illegally, a 99 percent increase over the same period a year earlier. About three-quarters of those children have been arrested in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas.
U.S. law requires that the children be processed and transferred to the custody of the Health and Human Services Department within 72 hours of their arrest. The wave of children has overwhelmed Border Patrol stations in South Texas that are ill-equipped to house children for an extended period of time, so Homeland Security has been flying planeloads of children to Arizona for processing at a facility in Nogales before sending them to shelters around the country.
The new processing facility would be less than a mile (1.6 kilometers) from the Rio Grande Valley’s busiest Border Patrol station. Floor plans show rows of cells with unsecured doors on either side of open “interaction/play” areas. Boys and girls would be separated and portable toilets would be installed.
“Minors will be staged here until processing is completed and then they (will be) moved to a different location,” according to a fire protection engineering analysis submitted by the U.S. General Services Administration.
That agency, which provides buildings for government operations, signed a one-year lease for the property.
The documents do not indicate when renovations would be complete.
Most of the children are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Many are fleeing widespread gang violence, and some are looking to reunite with parents already in the United States.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson wrote an open letter to Central American parents warning them of the dangers of such a journey and emphasizing that the children could be deported. “The criminal smuggling networks that you pay to deliver your child to the United States have no regard for his or her safety and well-being - to them, your child is a commodity to be exchanged for a payment,” the letter said.
The government has been struggling to cope with a surge of Central Americans entering Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, where the Border Patrol has made more than 174,000 arrests since Oct. 1. Immigration and Customs Enforcement decides whether families with young children and adults remain in custody or are released while they are in deportation proceedings.
U.S. border authorities have detained more than 39,000 adults with young children from October through May. Some have been released, but the Department of Homeland Security has refused to say how many and whether they failed to appear in immigration court.
The government has been actively looking for additional detention space — primarily for mothers with young children. ICE has only one detention center designed for families, an 85-bed facility in Berks County, Pennsylvania, that was once a nursing home.
The government is planning a 700-bed center in Artesia, New Mexico, that U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce told the Roswell Daily Record would be only for families. Pearce, a New Mexico Republican, told the newspaper Friday that the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia could house families but was not equipped to accommodate unaccompanied children.
The U.S. Border Patrol on Sunday canceled flights scheduled to bring nearly 300 Central American migrants from south Texas to California for processing, but the plans could be reinstated, an official said.
It was unclear why Monday’s flights for San Diego and El Centro, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) of east of San Diego, were shelved, said Ralph DeSio, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection, the Border Patrol’s parent agency.
“This whole thing is in a very fluid state,” DeSio said. “I’m not sure if the plans will be reactivated but, as we’re speaking here this moment, it has been canceled. Tomorrow is another day.”
Paul Beeson, chief of the Border Patrol’s San Diego sector, told The Associated Press on Saturday that there would be two flights with 140 passengers each. They were expected to continue every three days, carrying mostly families with children and some adults.
DeSio said those statements were accurate at the time.
The Border Patrol flew a large number of families from Texas to Tucson, Arizona, over Memorial Day weekend at the end of May, drawing criticism from Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer when ICE later dropped them off at Greyhound bus stations there.
Gabe Pacheco, spokesman for the National Border Patrol Council Local 1613, which represents agents in San Diego, said he believed the California flights would have occurred if they hadn’t been announced.
“It’s just a matter of time. They’ll do it when no one’s paying attention,” he said.
Associated Press writers Juan Carlos Llorca in El Paso, Elliot Spagat in San Diego, and Amy Taxin in Santa Ana, California, contributed to this report.