The federal government is holding more families that cross the border illegally instead of releasing them with directions to report to immigration authorities — but the challenges of doing that are starting to show.

In the two months since it opened a makeshift detention center to deal with the large numbers of single parents crossing the border with their children this year, chickenpox outbreaks have slowed deportations, advocates have sued to give detainees more access to lawyers, and now a Salvadoran woman has been paroled with her 18-month-old son due to his deteriorating health.

Elena, who asked that her last name not be used because she fled an abusive partner and gang member who threatened to kill her, said she had asked doctors to let her son visit a hospital because he was getting worse. Instead, she learned she would be released. She left Artesia (New Mexico) Residential Detention Center on Tuesday.

She’s in asylum proceedings after passing an interview to determine whether she has a credible fear of returning home, but an immigration judge had denied her bond. Her final hearing was scheduled for Oct. 2.

She and her son were caught in South Texas in late June and transferred to the 10-acre Federal Law Enforcement Center, which is also home to the detention center, in Artesia. Her son was later hospitalized and diagnosed with pneumonia, an ear infection, anemia and an adenovirus infection. Although he was released after two days, attorneys said medical records show he got worse.

“He used to be a happy a child who liked to play and run,” Elena said. “He wasn’t as fussy as you can hear him now,” she said as the baby wailed in the background.

Until late June, the government lacked detention space, so most Central American women were taken to places such as Tucson for processing and then dropped off at bus stations so they could reunite with family while their immigration cases proceed.

To stop the flow and to show Central Americans they’ll be sent back if they don’t qualify for legal benefits, the government opened two detention centers, one in Artesia and one in Karnes, Texas. There are now three facilities — including one in Pennsylvania — that hold families, with a total capacity of about 1,300 people.

Karnes is near its capacity at 532 parents and children. But intakes in Artesia have been limited due to two chickenpox outbreaks. Per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, officials must wait 21 days, a period that ended Sunday.

The Texas Observer, a nonprofit news organization, reported Friday that federal officials plan a new 2,400-bed, for-profit family detention lockup in South Texas.

“We are looking at a number of different options that would give us more flexibility should we see another influx,” said Phil Miller, an ICE senior official. “We don’t have sufficient capacity, even with Karnes and Artesia.”

LIFE IN DETENTION

The Artesia detention center is supposed to be temporary, but has taken a more permanent look since it opened about two months ago in space used by the Border Patrol when it went through a hiring boom.

Modular classrooms and offices are now a law library, courtrooms and play areas. About a mile of fence separates mothers and children from Border Patrol agents training on nearby rail cars.

One day last week there were 468 detainees — 223 women and 275 children. About 300 women and their children have been deported, including 16 Hondurans on Friday.

Outside, children drew large, colorful hearts with their names in them. They flew paper airplanes and asked for chocolate, specifically Snickers, as visitors passed by. Their blue ID bracelets wobbled as they waved hello.

School trailers arrived late last week and officials said they hope to start classes for children in October.

Elena and other women complained about officers making fun of them or refusing to give them water. Personnel rotate in and out, officials said, and there has been a greater emphasis on sensitivity since most officers are used to working in an adult-detention setting.

In the last couple of weeks, ICE mounted phones in each dorm building and added a kiosk for women to recharge a card with money sent from their relatives. Before, they would pass cellphones around and limit the time if there were many people waiting.

Lawyers now have more privacy to meet with clients in the law library, and ICE officials said they may add doors to the cubicles.

There’s now a room with a TV and an Xbox game console, pink Dora the Explorer chairs, Disney character table sets and other toys for children to play with while their mothers are in their credible fear interviews or at immigration hearings.

Since food has been an issue, ICE said it will meet with vendors and people from the federal training center to talk about switching flour tortillas for corn and serving more age-appropriate food to the children.

COMPLAINTS

Attorneys and advocates say detaining families, especially asylum-seekers, is not the answer.

“Nobody but the government believes detention deters people from coming,” said Laura Lichter, former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Officials had signaled a move away from detaining families in 2009, when the government closed the T. Don Hutto center in Texas after wide criticism and an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit.

The ACLU’s complaint said some families were detained for up to two years; at night children as young as 6 were separated from their parents; children received only one hour of schooling per day; and detainees were punished as groups if children misbehaved.

Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson sent a team of top advisers to Artesia two weeks ago in response to new complaints about the conditions at the center. A lawsuit recently filed by a coalition of civil-rights groups said women had insufficient time and a lack of privacy with their lawyers, medication was hard to get and some immigration officers mistreated families.

Government officials say the diarrhea, vomiting and colds found in the center are the same issues found in any typical day-care center.

Elena said it’s more than that. Children like her son often get sick and doctors wait too long to take them to the hospital, she said.

“At first, when I told them he had a fever,” she said, “they would say it was normal and to give him water.”

At times, she felt guilty.

“I would tell him, ‘My child, why did I have to bring you here?’ ” she said.

The DHS office of the inspector general visited some detention centers, including Artesia, in July and found illnesses and unsanitary conditions in some. A recent round of visits found conditions had improved.

ICE said it’s adding medical trailers and implementing a system to distribute medicine more quickly and shorten the wait time to see a doctor.

Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at ptrevizo@tucson.com or 573-4213.