The plight of unaccompanied Central American children crowded into a Border Patrol facility in Nogales brought tears to a state legislator from Sahuarita who toured it on Monday.
Sen. Andrea Dalessandro visited the converted warehouse with Nogales Mayor Arturo Garino and was told by a Border Patrol supervisor that the processing station would remain open until the end of September, and possibly longer.
As of Monday, there were 751 children held at a Nogales Border Patrol Station warehouse – a former processing station originally designed to expedite the deportations of Mexican nationals and not for taking care of minors for lengthy stays, said Jose Joaquin Chacon, the El Salvadoran consul in Tucson.
Dalessandro said Tuesday that she was told the number was near 1,000.
District 2 state Reps. Rosanna Gabaldon and Demion Clinco toured the Border Patrol station Sunday.
While Gabaldon, who lives in Sahuarita, did not visit the dormitory areas, she saw about 100 juveniles as they were coming out to eat. Most were males, 12 to 16 years old, but others were females, some of whom had infants and toddlers with them, she said.
Temperatures inside the warehouse are moderated by a “swamp cooler,” Gabaldon said, and while there is running water, the Border Patrol has brought in portable toilets and showers.
“I commend the Border Patrol for doing what they’re needing to do at this time, but I have to say that it is a very sad situation,” Gabaldon said.
Since last week, the Department of Homeland Security, facing overcrowded processing centers in south Texas, has been transferring children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to Nogales after they were apprehended trying to cross the border illegally. The number of unaccompanied minors crossing the Southwest border – mostly from Central America – boomed since last year, creating what President Obama recently called an “urgent humanitarian situation.”
The flood of minors from Central America, which has far surpassed the number from Mexico, is part of a recent but historic shift in migration patterns resulting from violence and poverty there, Dalessandro said.
Figures from the Department of Homeland Security show that for the first time, during this federal fiscal year, there were more unaccompanied minors arrested on the Southwest border from a country other than Mexico. Since Oct. 1, there have been 11,577 from Mexico, 13,282 from Honduras and 11,479 from Guatemala. There have been 9,850 from Salvador.
The number of minors arrested from Mexico this fiscal year is the lowest in the past six years. In that same time frame the numbers of children arrested from Honduras have grown by 13 times, ten-fold from Guatemala and eight-fold from El Salvador.
Dalessandro, whose District 2 includes Green Valley, Sahuarita, Nogales and southern Tucson, commended Border Patrol agents for coping with a a flood of migrants but said the federal government as a whole needs to do better planning. She said Border Patrol agents leading the tour said they expect to move 300 children at a time out of the facility, but that more children will be coming to replace them.
Before being deported or moved to other locations, the children are given medical examinations, background checks and the chance to telephone relatives, in addition to food, clothing and showers.
Dalessandro said she cried when a Border Patrol agent told her that at least one young boy said his father had been killed in Central America and his mother was in the United States, so relatives hired a smuggler to take him across the border to be safe here.
"The Border Patrol told us a lot of these kids will be applying for (political) asylum. Even little children are telling them of a parent being killed. I did start to cry when I heard that," Dalessandro said.
Meanwhile, a Border Patrol spokeswoman on Tuesday said the agency is not accepting donations of clothing or toys, in part because there is no staff to inspect each item for safety and cleanliness. But she said the children are being fed and clothed properly. There has been an outpouring of clothing and toys collected by local officials who hope to donate them to the children and the Border Patrol urged people to donate items to shelters in Nogales, where they would be sure to reach people in need.
The spokeswoman said that the Federal Emergency Management Agency might be accepting donations in the future.
Dalessandro agreed that the children are adequately cared for, and noted that many Border Patrol agents were volunteering their time, but said the children are crowded and scared. They are divided by age and gender into holding cells, as the agents call them, separated by chain link fences, some topped by barbed wire. She noted that there is not space to handle donations of clothing. The state legislator noted that a national vendor is providing food and switched to corn tortillas to suit the kids from Central America.
In a letter sent Monday to Obama, U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat who represents Nogales, expressed concern over reports that the warehouse at the Border Patrol Station “is not in a suitable condition to hold the unaccompanied children.” He asked that his office be “immediately” provided with written details on any improvements planned or underway to bring the facility up to par.
Grijalva also noted that there “are numerous humanitarian groups across the Southwest border offering their support to assure these children receive humane treatment,” and asked that they be allowed to do so.
“They are invested in the well-being of these children who, by no fault of their own, are suffering the consequences of violence and extreme poverty in their home countries,” he wrote.
Chacon, the Salvadoran consul, said he saw volunteers at the Border Patrol Station helping to take care of the minors during the weekend, including playing with them. He praised the volunteers for their efforts.
Area medical service providers have been on standby since last week, and Nogales Fire Department emergency crews have already transported three youths from the Border Patrol station to Carondelet Holy Cross Hospital, according to Gerry Castro, the EMS chief.
One of the youths was a 17-year-old girl who was 32 weeks pregnant when she was taken to the hospital last Thursday after complaining of labor pains. The following day, paramedics brought a 16-year-old male to the hospital for treatment of an “active cough,” and an 18-year-old male was hospitalized with seizures on Sunday, Castro said. He added that the teen suffering seizures had been off his medication for as many as 15 days.
Dina Sanchez, administrator at Carondelet Holy Cross Hospital, said she could not comment on the status of the patients because they were under federal custody. She referred questions to a Border Patrol official, who said he would refer the question to an agency spokesman, who did not respond by press time.
The Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection have offered little information on the situation in Nogales, but Gabaldon said she was told Sunday that a news conference is planned for sometime this week.
Gabaldon said the agent who led her tour Sunday, George Allen, assistant chief of the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, said the plan is to keep the minors in Nogales for no more than 72 hours before sending them to centers operated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement of the Department of Health and Human Services.
According to Cronkite News, White House officials said during a telephone briefing with reporters Monday that facilities at military bases in Texas and California have been opened to accommodate migrant children. Meanwhile, preparations are under way to open third facility in Oklahoma.
‘For the children’
Gus Benavides, operations administrator at the Nogales Crossroads Mission, said the mission, which offers lodging and hot meals to people in transition, has a contingency plan in case federal authorities need overflow housing, or if any minors are released into the local community.
“I personally doubt that they’ll release anybody here in Nogales. They’re in federal custody, they’re minors, I don’t think they want them out in the street,” Benavides said. “But just in case. You know, the mayor came on television and he said the city would offer any and all assistance that would be needed, if needed, so we just offered up our facility to the Mayor’s Office.”
The Crossroads Mission could handle no more than 50 or 60 of the minors, Benavides said, “but if it came to that, we’d be more than willing to assist.”
Kathi Campana, president of the Santa Cruz Board of Realtors, said there has been a good response to the clothing drive organized by her group and the Mayor’s Office, but added that more is needed.
“One of our members is married to a Border Patrolman and was told by her husband that all of these kids were dumped in Nogales and all they had basically was the clothes on their backs,” Campana said.
At City Hall, Cathy Garino, the mayor’s wife, sorted donated jeans, T-shirts and underwear in cardboard boxes by clothing sizes, as some people brought in clothing in dark, large plastic bags. The mayor said the response shows that Nogales has come together during this humanitarian effort, responding quickly to a call he put out Saturday on his Facebook page.
At noon Monday, a young woman in her 20s who asked not to be identified, stopped by City Hall with a bag full of clothing. She happily gave it to Cathy Garino.
“I do this for the children,” she said, smiling.