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We Toured Carrizo Springs, the Newest Shelter for Migrant Kids: “We Do Things Differently Here”

Other temporary facilities have been plagued by allegations of substandard care and abuse.

by Gaby Del Valle
Jul 11 2019, 5:25pm

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The Carrizo Springs shelter is the latest temporary facility opened to house migrant children, about 30 miles from the Mexican border and two hours outside San Antonio.

There, much like they would back home, migrant children hang their drawings on the wall. But the art at the newly opened facility has decidedly darker imagery: One drawing in the boys’ dormitory featured a minion from "Despicable Me" in a jail cell with “Bienvenido a SWK,” a possible reference to Southwest Key, the nonprofit that operates a number of other shelters.

Another illustration, on the wall in the girls' dorm, had faces enclosed in a heart with “Los extraño mucho” — I miss you all so much — alongside the words “mami,” “papi,” “hermanitos,” and “abuelita.”

VICE News took a tour of the facility Wednesday, and it's clear the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the shelters that temporarily hold migrant kids, is proud of its work there. Officials insisted Carrizo Springs isn’t like other temporary shelters — which have been plagued by allegations of substandard care and mistreatment of children — and certainly isn’t like Border Patrol stations — where children have been forced to sleep on the floor.

“This is not the tour you would receive at Homestead,” Health and Human Spokesperson (HHS) spokesperson Mark Weber told reporters who toured the facility on Wednesday, referring to a controversial temporary shelter in Florida described by lawyers who visited as “prison-like.”

“We’re doing things differently here,” Weber added.

Carrizo Springs is one of 168 shelters overseen by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), the HHS agency tasked with reuniting migrant children with their sponsors. Border Patrol agents refer unaccompanied children who arrive at the border — or those separated from their families — to ORR, which finds shelter space for them until they can be released to their sponsors. Before it was a shelter, the property was a “man camp” for oil workers, called The Studios.

READ: The Trump Administration Is Converting a Former "Man Camp" in Texas into a Shelter for Migrant Kids

According to Weber, the agency’s permanent, licensed shelters are nearly full, hence the need for short-term facilities like Carrizo Springs.

Like Homestead, Carrizo Springs is an unlicensed facility held to lower standards than permanent, licensed shelters. But unlike Homestead, Carrizo Springs is run by a nonprofit: BCFS, the organization that operated the infamous “tent city” shelter in Torillo, Texas last year.

“It’s an innovation happening here,” Weber said of the quality of care at Carrizo Springs. “I’m not maligning the care that’s happening elsewhere.” But, he added, HHS isn’t sending kids to Homestead anymore.

Touring the facility

Wednesday’s press visit mirrored the path a child would take after being admitted into the shelter.

Reporters were first taken to the intake room, a large, air-conditioned tent where new arrivals are given a preliminary health screening and informed of their rights. One of the tent’s walls was covered in Spanish-language posters explaining how to report sexual abuse. The “intake showers” — which are only used by children who have just arrived at the facility — were located in a small trailer just outside the tent.

"We don’t like doing border response at all — I hate it."

Carrizo Springs currently has capacity for 336 children but will eventually be able to hold up to 1,300. As of Tuesday, 232 children aged 13 to 17 were housed at the facility: 154 boys and 78 girls. Their bedrooms, classrooms, and even the trailer where they go to call their families twice a week are full of posters and drawings like the ones on the walls of their dorms.

In the shelter’s “command center,” Kevin Dinnin, the CEO of BCFS, told reporters that the shelter opened to alleviate overcrowding at Border Patrol stations: All of the children at Carrizo Springs had been sent there from other shelters. None had recently been in Border Patrol custody, and many were getting ready to be released.

Only two of the facility’s dorms are currently being used, and neither appeared to be full during Wednesday’s visit. Each dorm is divided into 14 pods, and each pod is subdivided into three 168-square-foot rooms with two sets of bunk beds. In total, 12 children are housed in each pod, where they share a small common space, a refrigerator, and a bathroom.

Other stops on the tour included the medical tent and the infirmary, where children are vaccinated within 48 hours of arrival and kept if they have a cold, rash, or other symptoms; the legal area, which Weber called the “little Vatican,” where children can privately meet with lawyers from nonprofits; and the cafeteria.

Reporters were told they could speak with any shelter employee they encountered, though most were in the middle of other tasks, so Weber did most of the talking. In the medical tent, one employee said there hadn’t been any emergencies in the days since the shelter opened. He added that a few kids had been getting rashes, which he attributed to a change in detergent or shampoo, or perhaps to the grass.

Superficial conversations

Though most of the rooms were empty, reporters did see — and even talk to — children staying at the shelter. But Weber laid down some “ground rules” before the tour began. Reporters weren't allowed to take any photos, videos, or audio recordings.

“You can’t ask more than, Hello, how are you? Where are you from? Are you happy here?” Weber instructed. Weber specifically barred reporters from asking children about their journey to the U.S. — which he said could re-traumatize them — or their cases.

Lawmakers who have toured Carrizo Springs and other shelters, including Homestead, have been given the same instructions and described these tours as “sanitized.”

As a result, the conversations reporters were able to have with children were superficial. A group of teenage girls leaving a math class told VICE News they liked being able to learn in the facility. When asked what their favorite subject is, they all yelled, “English!” — except for one girl who sheepishly admitted she liked math better.

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A gravel road off the highway leads to the Carrizo Springs shelter. (Gaby del Valle for VICE News)

Reporters were also taken into two classrooms, each of which had a group of about 30 boys. One group was learning social studies by drawing a map of U.S. and labeling all the states. Another was learning English, and a few boys showed reporters essays they had written — in Spanish — about the Statue of Liberty.

Last month, those educational programs were previously in jeopardy. ORR announced that the Trump administration would no longer fund non-essential shelter programs, like education and outdoor playtime because of budget issues. Shelters, which receive money from the government in exchange for these services, would be forced to pay for them out of pocket. But ORR is no longer in dire financial straits; Congress passed an emergency appropriations bill to further fund the agency.

Other groups of children walked across the grounds of the facility while the tour went on. There was a gazebo where kids can sit, as well as a soccer field where they could play, but no one seemed to have any interest in being outside. The temperature had hit more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the middle of the afternoon, and the kids quickly walked from their air-conditioned dorms to the air-conditioned trailers that serve as their classrooms.

“I hate it”

For the first time since March, HHS has released more children from its custody than it’s taken in, Weber said. Border apprehensions dropped by 28% between May and June, according to DHS data. That’s partly due to seasonal migration trends: Migrants tend avoid making the journey through Mexico during the summer, when rising temperatures can become deadly.

Though the number of migrants arriving at the border has slowed down in recent weeks, Dinnin told VICE News the Carrizo Springs shelter will be open for as long as it’s needed.

“We did not build the emergency management operation to do border influx situations. We don’t like doing border response at all — I hate it,” he said. But, he said, the alternative is letting kids languish in Border Patrol facilities that weren’t designed with child welfare in mind.

“I personally do not believe a child should be sent to Border Patrol stations at all,” Dinnin added.

READ: Flu, Lice, and Open Toilets: What Attorneys Saw At Migrant Child Processing Centers

In Dinnin’s mind, the Carrizo shelter is a humane way of preventing overcrowding at Border Patrol stations. But before the tour began, Weber, the HHS spokesperson, denied that the crowded, dirty conditions at facilities run by Customs and Border Patrol had anything to do with how HHS runs its shelters. Instead, he said, the stations were crowded because of the increase in arrivals.

Later on, Weber admitted that certain HHS policies — including a since-rescinded rule that required every adult living with a child’s prospective sponsor to be fingerprinted by the government — significantly slowed down the reunification process and contributed to a lack of bed space in licensed shelters.

“We have no desire to accumulate children. This is all about getting kids out of our care as quickly as possible,” Weber said. “We’ll be happy when we can close this place, because that means our standard shelters are no longer at capacity.”

Cover image: (Gaby del Valle for VICE News)