Nearly 80 immigrant children separated from their parents at the border are housed at a shelter north of downtown Tucson, U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva told reporters Friday after he toured the facility.
Since the Trump administration implemented a “zero tolerance” policy for border enforcement, there have been 3,000 children reclassified as unaccompanied minors across the U.S.-Mexico border, including about 100 under the age of 5, after their parents were referred for prosecution for crossing the border illegally.
But government officials have refused to provide local numbers.
Casa Estrella del Norte, the shelter visited by Grijalva, is one of about three in the Tucson area. There are at least nine others in the greater Phoenix area, according to a map put together by ProPublica.
“It’s clean, but it’s still a place where kids can’t leave,” Grijalva said after the more than hourlong tour. “At the end of the day it is still disheartening to see kids in legal limbo trying to figure out what’s going to be their status in the future.”
There are about 300 minors currently housed at the shelter — about 60 girls and the rest boys — which is operating at capacity.
Grijalva said the focus at the moment is to expedite the reunifications of those separated from their parents, which is taking about 45 days.
“It’s going to be difficult,” said Grijalva, a Tucson Democrat. “The staff was very honest — the reunification is not going to be an easy task.”
The administration requested an extension Friday to abide by a federal judge’s order to reunite children under age 5 by Tuesday and the rest within 30 days.
Citing Department of Homeland Security officials, The New York Times reported that records linking children to their parents have disappeared, in some cases destroyed, complicating reunification efforts.
As part of the process, staff at Southwest Key — which operates the shelters — is looking at each case individually. This can include DNA samples to ensure they are connecting the child to the right individual, Grijalva said.
In response to an email request for updated numbers initially submitted in June, Department of Health and Human Services officials responded: “As HHS continues to evaluate the impact of the District Court ruling, and given the constantly changing number of unaccompanied alien children in our care (every day minors are referred to our care and released from our care to parents, close relatives or suitable sponsors), we are providing the total number of unaccompanied alien children in the care of HHS-funded grantees. While we understand the interest in detailed breakdowns of this information, our mission has been and remains to provide every minor transferred to HHS, regardless of the circumstances, with quality and age-appropriate care and a speedy and safe release to a sponsor. Currently, there are more than 11,800 minors in our care.”
Casa Estrella del Norte shelter opened in the summer of 2014 in what used to be studio apartments for college students. That year, the number of unaccompanied minors crossing the border had risen to about 40,000. The following year, the Border Patrol apprehended close to 70,000 minors along the Southwest border, the vast majority from Central America and many of them crossing through Texas.
So far this fiscal year, the Border Patrol has apprehended 37,450 unaccompanied minors coming through the southwest border and nearly 69,000 families, usually a parent traveling with a child.
The Obama administration reopened an old warehouse at the Nogales Border Patrol station but that was only a temporary solution because it was never designed to hold children. Then, just as the Trump administration is proposing now, the Defense Department made military bases in San Antonio; Ventura County, California; and Fort Sill, Oklahoma, available to temporarily house some of the minors.
Customs and Border Protection has to transfer the children within 72 hours to HHS, which takes custody of them while they are reunited with parents or relatives in the United States to continue their immigration proceedings.
The federal agency then contracts with groups such as Southwest Key, which describes itself as the largest provider of shelter services to unaccompanied minors in the country, to house the children while case managers work to find the parents or other relatives or sponsors.
But the facilities are off limits to the public, including media and government officials.
In 2015, the Star visited the Tucson shelter following reports of three immigrant teens running away in the span of a couple of days. City Councilman Steve Kozachik pushed for a tour that included a member of the media. No photographs were allowed.
Back then, as children arrived they were welcomed by two wall-size murals featuring children holding hands around a globe, and inspirational words in Spanish, including bravery and integrity.
The dorms had twin beds; some had bunk beds. A staff member who works with Grijalva said two to three kids sleep in a room.
There used to be a room to accommodate mothers with babies, but the facility now cares only for children older than 5.
While they wait for reunification, children take classes in subjects including English, math and social studies. They also do physical education and have time to play outside.
Classrooms had walls covered in maps and the children’s drawings of their home countries’ flags and national birds. What used to be a coffee shop was a game room with pool tables and foosball.
The cafeteria entrance had a big white board with a calendar listing different activities for the month, which include movie nights and religious services.
Children are generally separated by age groups and gender. Depending on the number being housed, they are also broken into groups to eat their three meals a day, officials told the Star in 2015.
Southwest Key has been operating shelters for years now, especially since 2014, but recently came under more scrutiny for housing the children separated from their parents.
Media reports, including from Texas Monthly and Reveal, have found violations in facilities across the country.
Arizona Department of Health Services officials have surveyed the Tucson shelter four times, including two on-site inspections, since it opened and have found it to be in compliance.
In the last decade, Southwest Key, an Austin-based nonprofit, has received $1.5 billion from the federal government and will receive at least $459 million in 2018. The nonprofit says it runs 26 immigrant children’s shelters in Texas, Arizona and California.
Based on current trends, Grijalva said, the need to care for immigrant minors is not a passing phenomenon and will continue.
What’s needed at the moment, he said, are more resources to speed up reunifications, to resist efforts to overturn the Flores settlement which protects minors, and to get rid of zero tolerance enforcement.
“The separations need to end,” he said.
The court agreement known as the Flores settlement has governed the detention of immigrant children since the mid-1980s, limiting the amount of time children can be held in federal detention to 20 days, among other things.
While Grijalva said the real solution to immigration issues lies with something comprehensive, “given the political firestorm created, I doubt it will happen,” he added.
Instead, “we will have to deal with the separations, with DACA, with unaccompanied minors, in isolation of the bigger solution.”