The federal government plans to open a shelter in Tucson to accommodate the influx of unaccompanied minors crossing the border, according to a Guatemalan government official and city and county documents.
On May 30, Southwest Key, which describes itself as the largest provider of shelter services to unaccompanied minors in the country, requested a permit to convert part of a studio-apartment complex into a shelter for 36 children. The city of Tucson approved the request this week.
Also in May, the group contacted the Pima County Planning Department about using a hotel as a shelter for at least 150 children. In a document to the county, Southwest Key described it as “a group home/residential care facility/shelter/interim foster program for immigrant children who are under the protection of the Federal Department of Health and Human Services in the Office of Refugee Resettlement under the Division of Children Services.” It will not be a detention center, the document says.
The county responded on May 19 that Southwest Key would have to get approval from the Pima County Board of Supervisors for a “modification of a rezoning condition” because the hotel had been previously approved to be rezoned for an assisted-living facility. Chris Poirier, assistant planning director, said Thursday that his office hasn’t heard back from the real estate company.
An Arizona Department of Health Services spokeswoman, Laura Oxley, said Southwest Key told department officials it plans to open a shelter in Tucson but has not filed any paperwork. Southwest Key referred all questions about the shelters to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
In an email, an Office of Refugee Resettlement spokeswoman said the agency does not give out locations of shelters “so as to protect the privacy and security of the children in HHS care, many of whom have fled situations of violence in their home countries.”
Mother Jones magazine recently published the cities of the 80 shelters in the country, which it obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Southwest Key lists four Arizona locations in its website: two in Phoenix, one in Glendale and one in Youngtown.
Jimena Diaz, consul general of Guatemala in Phoenix, said her office was told the Tucson shelter, among several to be opened in Arizona, would open by the end of June with a capacity of 200 children.
On May 21, Southwest Key’s website advertised nearly two dozen job openings in Tucson for positions including cook, youth-care worker, clinician and program director.
The number of children attempting the journey north has been steadily increasing over the last several years, but nothing compared with what officials are seeing this year.
In the past eight months, more than 47,000 children, mostly from Mexico and Central America, have been apprehended along the Southwest border.
Most of them are coming through south Texas. The Tucson Border Patrol Sector is the only one that has seen a slight decrease — 5 percent — so far this fiscal year compared with the same period last year.
Children are placed wherever the Office of Refugee Resettlement can find beds for them — and often that’s not in the state where they were apprehended.
To help process the minors, this week the Border Patrol reopened a processing center in Nogales that had been closed for several years, said Art del Cueto, president of the local Border Patrol Union. It mainly will process juveniles from countries other than Mexico.
“If Texas doesn’t have the facilities to take care of them, what are we going to do?” he asked. “They are truly overrun right now.”
Diaz said the Guatemalan government is also working on opening an office in Tucson to better serve those in need.
The government estimates that as many as 60,000 children will be caught along the border this year — a tenfold increase from 2011. More of them are also girls and younger than 13.
Crime, gangs and a desire to reunite with parents in the United States are among the reasons young immigrants come to America. Rumors back home about women and children being released also have contributed to the increases.
The shelter will help reunite children and adolescents with their parents or place them with a foster family. While at the shelter, children will receive medical attention, counseling, legal representation and schooling. A child’s average stay will be less than 35 days, Southwest Key documents say.
Migrant children still can be deported after they are reunited with their parents or relatives. Special visas are available for those who have been abandoned, abused or trafficked.
Little information is available about the fate of minors caught at the border. The New York Times recently reported that in 2013 the administration deported one-fifth the number of Central American children as in 2008.