BROWNSVILLE, Texas – Children’s faces pressed against glass. Hundreds of young boys and girls covered with aluminum foil-type blankets next to chain-link fences topped with barbed wire. The pungent odor that comes with keeping people in close quarters.
These were the scenes Wednesday from tours of crowded Border Patrol stations in South Texas and Arizona, where thousands of immigrants are being held before they are transferred to other shelters around the country.
It was the first time the media was given access to the facilities since President Barack Obama called the more than 47,000 unaccompanied children who have entered the country illegally this budget year an urgent humanitarian situation.
The surge in minors, mostly from Central America, has overwhelmed the U.S. government. The children pose a particular challenge because the law requires that they be transferred from Border Patrol stations to the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours.
From there, they are sent to shelters for several weeks as the government tries to reunite them with family in the U.S. The network of about 100 shelters around the country has been over capacity for months and is now caring for more than 7,600 children.
The tours were a shift from previous weeks when the government refused to provide basic details about the location of the facilities. But the tours also came with restrictions, such as no interaction with children and no on-the-record conversations with employees.
Inside the Fort Brown station in Brownsville, dozens of young boys were separated from dozens of young girls, with many lying under blankets on concrete floors. Mothers with children still younger were in another cell.
Happier faces could be found in a side yard outside, where young children colored pictures under a camouflage tent.
A group of about a dozen girls sat under another tent outside the shower trailer, dark hair wet and shiny. Women wearing blue gloves combed each girl’s hair.
In Nogales, Arizona, girls playing soccer with two male border agents shrieked when their ball crossed over the chain-link fence and away from the small recreational area. Others playing basketball cheered on their teammates.
Inside, the approximately 1,000 children in the clean, 120,000-square-foot warehouse were silent.
Federal agents said they could not provide an estimate of the number of minors at the facility because the figure is fluid as children transition in and out.
Authorities at the Nogales station have struggled to adjust to their new role as temporary caretakers.
It took a few days of children rejecting breakfast burritos before agents learned that Central Americans aren’t accustomed to flour tortillas. FEMA renegotiated its contract with a food vendor to begin receiving corn tortillas instead.