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Inside the old Walmart where 1,500 undocumented immigrant kids are being held

"Effectively, these kids are incarcerated," said one journalist who toured the facility.

by Christianna Silva
Jun 14 2018, 4:13pm

More than a thousand undocumented immigrant children are being held in an old Walmart in Texas, where they reportedly stay inside for 22 hours a day and share tight quarters, with five to a room.

Inside the prison-like Casa Padre facility in Brownsville, Texas, nearly 1,500 boys ranging from 10 to 17 years old eat in the cafeteria, watch movies like “Moana,” and play soccer, pool, and video games. The boys stay in the shelter, which has classrooms, a barber shop, and a medical area where they receive screening and treatment, for an average of 52 days before being placed with a sponsor, NBC News reported. The shelter is run by the government-contracted nonprofit Southwest Key Programs and overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Reporters were allowed access to the shelter — and to take photos and videos — for the first time after Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon attempted to inspect the conditions of the shelter last week. He was turned away by a police escort, which was captured on Facebook Live at the time.

“We likely wouldn’t have had a shot at getting inside Casa Padre tonight had @SenJeffMerkley not tried and been turned away before us,” MSNBC correspondent Jacob Soboroff tweeted Wednesday evening.

The footage from inside the Brownsville facility shows the close quarters the boys live in and sobering details from their environment, including a mural of President Donald Trump accompanied by the words: “Sometimes by losing a battle, you find a new way to win the war.”

When Soboroff toured the facility, he said a shelter employee asked reporters to smile at the kids. Although they aren’t prisoners, “they feel like animals in a cage being looked at,” the employee told him.

“Effectively, these kids are incarcerated,” Soboroff told Chris Hayes on his “All In” show on Wednesday night.

About five boys sleep in each room that’s supposed to sleep just four, due to overcrowding, NBC News reported. Many of them haven’t spoken to their parents and don’t know where they are. But they’re allowed to speak to people by phone outside the shelter if they can reach them.

The boys in the shelter, the biggest licensed child care facility in the nation, represent less than 10 percent of the immigrant children in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services. They’re a mix of kids who crossed into the U.S. alone without documentation and those who came with their parents but were separated under the Trump administration’s new zero-tolerance policy.

The policy, announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions just weeks ago, requires that people caught trying to enter the country illegally be immediately arrested and placed in detention without their children. Since its implementation, the number of migrant children held in U.S. government custody without their parents has increased by more than 20 percent, resulting in full HHS shelters. More than 11,000 migrant children are already being held at HHS shelters, which are currently almost full. The one is Brownsville is understaffed and unequipped for the new policy, according to Los Angeles Times reporter Molly Hennessy-Fiske, who took a tour on Tuesday. At least 13 citations have been filed against the shelter, according to the New York Times.

While these shelters existed before Trump’s administration, they began filling up fast under his administration’s harsh policies — so fast that officials are reportedly considering putting children in so-called “tent cities” in at least some Southern states. These overflow facilities could hold between 1,000 and 5,000 children, HHS officials and other sources familiar with the plans told McClatchy News Service on Tuesday.

Cover image: Detainees, with the shoe strings removed, wait at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility, Wednesday, June 18, 2014, in Brownsville,Texas. It's a different and smaller facility as Casa Padre, shown in the text. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, Pool)