By Richard Fausset and Ken Belson on June 5, 2014
SAN ANTONIO — This is what it looks like when an immigration system is overwhelmed by tens of thousands of women and children from Central America.
In an emergency shelter for unaccompanied children at Lackland Air Force Base here, on a concrete pad where troops would typically muster, roughly 100 teenage boys listened attentively on Thursday to a man who was preaching to them in their native Spanish.
“We know that you are sad, that you are alone,” he said. “Don’t look at the size of the problem. Look toward the solution.” He went on: “Let’s defeat this giant!”
In Phoenix, up to four buses a day arrive at the Greyhound station, each filled to capacity with women and children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. They crossed the border in Texas, but immigration officials sent them to Phoenix because the Texas facilities were overcrowded.
Since Memorial Day weekend, about 1,000 women and children have been flown to Tucson from Texas, then driven by bus to Phoenix and dumped unceremoniously, weary and hungry, left to find their families scattered around the nation. Some minors will be housed at a naval base in California, and immigration officials are finding extra aircraft. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been ordered to coordinate efforts to contain the crisis.
Crews of local volunteers have been greeting the migrants at the Phoenix bus station, indignant that immigration authorities are dropping them off with little more than bottles of water, apples and potato chips.
“This is cruel,” said Jorge Mendez, a volunteer at the Phoenix Restoration Project, a nonprofit group that helps immigrants settle. “I understand that if they stayed in Texas, they could have been deported. But the first thing they say when they get off the bus is they are hungry.”
These scenes are not only enraging local groups but also causing alarm among Border Patrol officials, who worry that American policy toward these migrants is a direct cause of their increased numbers. White House officials have said that criminal violence and ailing economies in Central America, not American border security, are the primary factors driving the wave.
The unanticipated surge in migrants in recent weeks has created a political, practical and humanitarian crisis for the Obama administration. Conservative critics argue that the administration’s enforcement of immigration law has sent encouraging signals to Central Americans, suggesting that they may enjoy a de facto amnesty if they get across the Mexico border.
The numbers reached a new peak this week, Border Patrol officials said. On Wednesday, a single group of about 250 migrants, mostly women and children, was apprehended after crossing the Rio Grande near McAllen, Tex., said Raul Ortiz, deputy Border Patrol chief in the Rio Grande Valley.
Mr. Ortiz said that about one-third of those caught in his sector were women traveling with young children. Families require special detention facilities, and the authorities have run out of space along the Texas border to hold them.
Homeland Security officials are scrambling to find new detention facilities and to break up bottlenecks that have slowed deportations. Among border officials, concern is mounting that migrants, including unaccompanied minors, who have been released are spreading the word back to Central America and encouraging more to come.
According to an internal draft Homeland Security document, officials recently revised their projections on unaccompanied minors. They now expect more than 90,000 in the 2014 fiscal year, an increase of nearly 20,000 from the previous projection. Frequent releases of migrants who have crossed the border illegally “serve as incentives for additional individuals to follow the same path,” the document said.
Peter Boogaard, a spokesman for the Homeland Security Department, said the draft was not official policy and had not been finalized or circulated.
Chris Cabrera of the Border Patrol union in the Rio Grande Valley said officers were increasingly worried that the focus on children and families had diverted them from maintaining control at the border. “So much of our time and effort is being spent on family units and juveniles,” he said. “We are leaving the door open for others to come across.”
There are roughly 1,200 children in the shelter at Lackland Air Force Base because there was no room for them in immigration facilities along the border. Here, in clean, simple dorms usually used to house troops, the children, already checked for scabies and lice, had been served hearty American cafeteria food and given fresh white tube socks.
But they had arrived without their parents — indeed, without much at all. And now that they were in American custody, it was not clear where they would end up next.
Lackland’s emergency shelter is one of two that the administration has established on military bases in recent weeks to handle the wave of unaccompanied immigrant children. The second is at Naval Base Ventura County in Oxnard, Calif. On Thursday, federal officials offered news organizations a restricted tour of the Lackland site. Reporters were not allowed to take photographs or to speak with children, to protect their privacy.
Kimi Jackson, director of the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project in Harlingen, Tex., said that many children at the shelter should be considered eligible for asylum or other immigration relief because they were fleeing “extreme violence” in their home countries, or had been abused by their parents. Ms. Jackson’s group tries to find pro bono lawyers for children who meet those criteria, but she said the demand almost always exceeded supply.
Health and Human Services officials said that most children remained in the department’s custody for about 35 days. By federal law, officials must try to pair the children with relatives living in the United States, so that they may live in a normal household environment while they wait for a resolution to their immigration proceedings.
For any children exposed to the horrors Ms. Jackson described, the Lackland shelter, which the Health and Human Services Department set up last month, must have seemed like a welcome relief. On Thursday, it had an easygoing, summer-camp atmosphere: Dozens of staff members interacted with the children, preaching to them, teaching them basic English and tending to the sick. Peals of laughter could be heard emanating from a girls’ dorm room. In another dorm, a group of girls sat in a circle on the floor, having what appeared to be a group heart-to-heart.
There were also hints of the trauma they had survived while crossing the harrowing expanse of Mexico alone, and the trauma they were living through now. Hallways and cot-lined dorm rooms were adorned with the children’s homemade inspirational posters.
“Be strong,” one of them said. “Be brave. Trust in God. He is great.”
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