For the tens of thousands of unaccompanied Central American kids flooding the United States border, their journeys toward a better life are ending up inside windowless detention centers.
Authorities along the US-Mexico border have been overwhelmed by the current wave of underage immigrants.
“Illegal alien numbers are always higher in the summer,” Oscar Saldaña, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection in the agency’s Rio Grande Sector, told VICE News. “But this year we’ve seen more than ever before.”
Last month alone, 48,000 unaccompanied children arrived in the Rio Grande Valley.
In the border patrol compound in Nogales, Arizona, now functioning as a holding camp, the staff placed an order for 2,000 mattresses to deal with the influx.
“We’re expecting 1,000 to arrive this weekend to add to the 600 who are already here,” said Ed Johnson, a border patrol official working at the base, speaking to VICE News in a phone interview June 10. “Then another thousand more this weekend.”
“We’re doing the best with what we’ve got,” Johnson said.
Many immigrants are driven on their 2,000 mile exodus through Mexico under the impression that the US does not deport minors.
Among them are pregnant women and mothers with newborn infants who are trying to reunite with family members already in the US and also seek a better life for their children.
Conditions at Holding Camps
Military bases are serving as ill-fitted camps for children the government doesn’t know what to do with yet.
Conditions inside some of the camps have been described as horrific.
As a result of leaked images showing boys and girls corralled in cramped, windowless rooms at a detention center in Texas, a US Customs and Border Protection commander at the Nogales, Arizona station banned personal cell phones inside holding areas.
Last week, Border Patrol agents were also reportedly warned to not talk to the news media, and to be wary because reporters could “disguise themselves.”
In Nogales, an estimated 1,000 kids are still being held in limbo at the most recently converted military facility to house children fleeing violence and threats from powerful street gangs in countries like El Salvador and Honduras.
A source within the Nogales camp said the immigrant children reportedly went nine days without access to showers, catered food, and medical facilities.
But officials have said that conditions at the centers are not as dire as they seem.
“Conditions are improving,” according to Nogales Mayor Arturo Garino, who spoke to the media last week, responding to President Obama’s comments that the situation had become a “humanitarian crisis.” “It’s an unbelievable situation that these kids came 2,000 miles.”
Border officials said they will keep concentrating on deporting unaccompanied minors. Some 6,000 young people were repatriated to Mexico in the first four months of the year, new figures show.
“It’s just a matter of time before these kids leave,” said Will Jenkins, public affairs officer at Lackland Airforce Base in San Antonio, Texas — another compound that is housing minors. “All illegal immigrants get deported.”
Other holding camps for minors includes the Naval Base Ventura County in Southern California.
Responding to claims of abuse on the part of border agents with children in their custody, US Customs and Border Protection Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske told reporters on June 13 that such claims were too vague to pursue.
“The lack of specificity, particularly when, where, what station, let alone the names of any individual, is extremely troubling,” Kerlikowske said, in one account. “The vagueness of the complaints is very concerning. That means (the investigations) will take longer.”
Illegal immigration to the US among minors has shifted demographically in the last five years.
Mexican minors trying their chances on crossing the border has dropped from 16,000 to 11,000 since 2009, while child immigrant numbers from Honduras, for example, have jumped from 968 to more than 13,000 in the same time frame, according to US figures.
The overall number of underage immigrants caught crossing the border has nearly doubled in less than a year, a dramatic spike, according to new figures released on June 10 by the Pew Research Center.
The situation is raising tensions over immigration reform in the country’s border states.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer delivered a letter to the White House expressing her “outrage,” she wrote, “that President Obama’s administration continues to implement a dangerous and inhumane policy whilst neglecting to answer his citizens’ crucial questions.”
“It’s a crisis of the government’s creation,” she went on, “and we see no end to it in sight because there is no solution to fix it.”
Some residents in the border area expressed sympathy for the migrant minors.
Linda Jimenez, a US citizen and resident of Weslaco, a city east of McAllen, Texas, told VICE News she is now encouraging family members to attempt the trek from El Salvador. Many of her relatives have made attempts to cross the border illegally in the past only to be sent back, Jimenez said.
“These kids aren’t trafficking drugs or on the run from the law,” she argued. “These people are running from a place which has turned into a hellhole. It’s our government’s responsibility to help them.”
Crime is up in Central America. Drug cartels, with business booming since the Mexican government’s crackdown on organized crime, have expanded significantly into Central America.
Meanwhile, US-bred street gangs in Central American nations remain powerful on the streets in many cities.
The Honduran capital Tegucigalpa sees 90 murders per 100,000 residents annually. It is considered one of the most dangerous city in the world.