NOGALES — The mood is anxious among the hundreds of migrant children and youths held at a Nogales center, but their detention conditions are improving, said a Central American official who visited them.
About 750 minors were being held there as of Saturday afternoon, the result of an influx of border crossers in South Texas that’s led U.S. officials to temporarily transfer the unaccompanied children to the Nogales holding center.
Federal officials told Gov. Jan Brewer’s office that more than 1,000 minors would be transferred to Arizona over the weekend.
Jimena Díaz, consul general of Guatemala in Phoenix, visited the center Friday and said there were about 260 children from Guatemala, with the rest coming from El Salvador and Honduras.
The children are being kept in separate groups, divided by age and gender. Most are 15 to 17, Díaz said. Teen mothers with their children are also being detained separately.
But José Joaquín Chacón, consul general of El Salvador in Arizona, who visited Saturday, said there are a handful of younger children — some as young as 4 — for whom federal officials are trying to find a shelter as soon as possible.
The center, part of the Nogales Border Patrol Station on West La Quinta Road, was recently reopened to handle the new arrivals. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials say it can accommodate about 1,500 unaccompanied children, as a way station before they are sent to Health and Human Services’ designated sites.
CBP has secured additional services such as a medical screening area, bedding, shower areas and laundry facilities, officials said Saturday. Portable toilets are being used and Arizona is sending medical supplies. Vendors have been contracted to provide meals and the Federal Emergency Management Agency is providing counseling.
Chacón said that while the situation was not optimal, the U.S. was working on improving the site.
While the mood was restless, with some of the minors being at the center for three days so far, the children had been given plastic balls and playing cards to pass the time. Border Patrol agents were working to set up a recreation area, Chacón said.
Consular officials from the Central American countries are explaining the process they’re going through and children have been in contact with family members in the United States.
“What they want is to be with their families. We are asking them to be patient,” Díaz said. “Due to the large quantity it’s something that’s going to take some time.”
CBP officials said that once the youths are processed, certain individuals will be transferred to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, where appropriate custody determinations will be made case-by-case, prioritizing national security and public safety.
Central Americans making the journey north is not new, but changes in the numbers, genders and ages of those crossing have shifted the situation to emergency mode, officials said.
Five years ago, 83 percent of the nearly 20,000 children caught while trying to come into the United States were Mexican nationals, for whom processing is easier because their country is right across the border. So far this fiscal year, 75 percent of the 46,000 minors are Guatemalans, Salvadorans and Hondurans.
Border Patrol stations in Texas are overcrowded, with no room to process or detain those being apprehended, so CBP has flown some detainees to other sectors including Arizona.
The first planes started arriving in Arizona in early May and included only men traveling alone. But the transfers soon shifted to women and their young children and now to unaccompanied minors.
Women and children cannot be detained with the general population and there’s only one shelter for family units in the country, in Pennsylvania.
The Defense Department has also made military bases in San Antonio, Texas, and Ventura County, California, available to temporarily house some of the minors. Documents show the agency plans to open at least one shelter in Tucson.
CBP has to turn children traveling alone over to the Refugee Resettlement Office, normally within 72 hours, which works to reunite them with families while their cases are pending. The U.S. is required to make sure they are not being trafficked or that they have a reasonable fear of returning to their home country.