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Child Detention Centers: A 'Headache' For The Obama Administration


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. My thanks to my colleague Audie Cornish for filling in for me while I was away last week. We'd like to start today by going back to what many people, including President Obama, are calling a crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. There, thousands of undocumented and unaccompanied children are being held in detention centers. The border patrol estimates that 52,000 unaccompanied children, mostly from Central America, have been apprehended trying to cross the border just since October. The problem has become so serious that on Friday Vice President Joe Biden met with Central American leaders in Guatemala to talk about the issues that are said to be driving this surge across the border. We wanted to know more about that, so we've called Alan Gomez. He covers immigration for USA Today. Welcome, Alan, thanks for joining us.

ALAN GOMEZ: Great to be here.

MARTIN: And we wanted to hear more about the conditions at these detention centers, which have become very difficult for the children as well as the people working there, so we called Chris Sherman for more on that. He is a reporter for the Associated Press who visited a detention center in Brownsville, Arizona. Chris, welcome to you as well. Thanks for coming.

CHRIS SHERMAN: Hi, Michel, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Well, Alan, I'm going to start with you because you kept track of the vice president's visit. Have we learned anything new about what's driving these children across the border?

GOMEZ: Well, as with any immigration debate here in Washington, there's some disagreement as to what exactly is leading them here. There's a lot of folks in D.C. right now who are saying that it's due to the president's lax immigration record that he's put up the welcome mat to undocumented immigrants to come here that they'll be allowed to stay here if they get here.

But the more you look at what's going on in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the three countries where the vast majority of these kids are coming from, it is just staggering the levels of violence and the terrible condition that the economy is in in those three countries. And that's what at least a lot of the kids that are coming over here are saying is the reason that they're coming. Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala - 3 of the top 6 murder rates in the world right now. Drug cartels are running rampant down there, gangs are just getting out of hand and so a lot of - you know, as we're seeing more of these reporters getting down there, more people talking to these parents who are doing the unthinkable of sending their kid off on this just incredibly dangerous journey. A lot of them are pointing to the fact that they're just incredibly worry about their kids and what's going to happen to them if they stay in these incredibly violent countries.

MARTIN: You know, just briefly on the point that you made that some people in Washington are saying it's the president's lax immigration policies - are there rumors that - or is there, in fact, misinformation about what the policies are?

GOMEZ: Oh, absolutely. And this has been from - this stems back a couple of years now. The president, if you remember a few years ago, created a program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. And what that does is allow an undocumented immigrant who was brought here when they were young to apply to the federal government and get a sort of deportation reprieve for a couple of years.

The thing is, is there's a cut-off date for that, and that cut-off date was many years ago. And a lot of people in Central America are saying that the idea of the cutoff date didn't quite filter all the way down. Even now, when we - as we see Congress still trying to pass some version of immigration reform, anybody who would qualify for any kind of path to citizenship within that bill - there's another cut-off date for that, and that's also a few years ago. So any of these kids that are getting here now do not benefit from any of these - either Obama's program to allow some of them to stay or any sort of congressional bill that's being considered. But some of them do think that once they get here, that they might qualify for something like that. So it's been really difficult.

I can tell you Vice President Biden - when he was down there - that was one of the main objectives of going there, was to speak directly to the people of those three countries to let them know that they will not qualify for any of those, that once the kids do get here - yes, we're going to take care of them. Yes, we're going to house them, but they're also immediately going to be put into deportation proceedings.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of those kids who are already here, Chris, you visited a detention center. Just give us some of your impressions, some of the things that we've seen. A lot of people have been seeing, you know, images of these detention centers, and they don't look like the kind of places must of us would want our children - you know, kids packed very closely together, very little in the way of amenities. Tell us what you saw.

SHERMAN: Of course. I visited the Fort Brown Border Patrol Station in Brownsville, Texas. This has been the hub where the children arrested here in the Rio Grande Valley - and this is the southernmost tip of Texas - this is where about three quarters of all the children who have been arrested - unaccompanied children have been arrested here on the Southwest border.

And at the Fort Brown station, it's just a border patrol station. They have eight holding cells inside. They are probably what you would expect for something called a holding cell - concrete walls, concrete floor, concrete bench, single toilet back in the corner, glass window in front. And the problem is that with so many children, they're having difficulty processing them quickly enough and moving them on. The law requires that the border patrol transfer custody of these on the unaccompanied children to the Health and Human Services Department within 72 hours of their arrest. And that's basically just recognition that these border patrol stations are ill-equipped to hold anyone, much less children, for a long period of time.

MARTIN: Can ask you this - and if we can, just for a moment, set aside the politics of why these children are here or whatever information led them to come here - how are the agents dealing with this? I'm imagining that many of them have children themselves, and I'm just wondering - but they weren't trained, I don't think, necessarily, to handle, you know, young children. How are they coping with that?

SHERMAN: It's extremely difficult. And on this tour, we were not permitted to speak with any of the agents, and it was very quick. But prior to that, in the weeks prior, I've been hearing from border patrol agents who contact me to let me know how difficult the conditions are. You're absolutely right. They have children, too, and I can only imagine the impact that it must be to deal with these kids in this situation on a day-to-day basis because we had 10 minutes in and out of that border patrol station on the tour and, you know, even though I interviewed these agents prior, I had seen some of the leaked photos - it's still a bit different when, you know, the kids behind the glass are waving at you.

MARTIN: How do the kids seem, by the way? Do they seem scared? Do they seem relieved? Are they hungry? How do they seem?

SHERMAN: It's a mix. Again, we weren't allowed to interview any of the children when we took that tour. So you try to make eye contact with as many as you can, and some of them are smiling and waving and trying to get your attention. Others are - have a more blank expression. Some others we saw there and you saw in the photos were, you know, sleeping under blankets on the floor, kind of in a big pile.

So I think it's safe to assume, though, that most are scared. I've interviewed kids, you know, before they go into these stations and after they've been through the process. And they say that they have no idea really what to expect. I'm sure there are rumors that they've heard that you'll be treated all right and you'll eventually be reunited with your family if you have parents in the U.S. But they really - you drill down deeper, and they really have no idea what's about to happen.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with Chris Sherman of the Associated Press and Alan Gomez of USA Today. And we're talking again about the thousands of undocumented minors who are being held in detention facilities across the U.S.-Mexico border - many of them crossing from Central America trying to get to the U.S.

So, Alan, what are some of the things - that, you know, you said that Vice President Joe Biden talked about the situation, and in part, he wanted to send the message that, you know, if you've been hearing that there's been an amnesty, you'll be able to stay - that that's wrong. Anything else? Were there any object or goals for the visit, and were any of those accomplished?

GOMEZ: Yeah, I mean, this is the problem with an issue as big as it's become. They're working on two things, sort of short-term and long-term. On the short-term, they're trying to work with the governments down there to see what they can do to sort of try to stop this flow as quickly as they can. As you can imagine, that's incredibly hard. These are countries, because of the raging violence down there, they don't exactly have a lot of money to suddenly invest in border patrol and to sort of locked down their borders. So they got their hands pretty full as it is.

But the other thing they're trying to do is kind of address some of these long-term issues as well. While the vice president was down there, he announced a $40 million grant for Guatemala, a $25 million grant for El Salvador, an $18 million grant for Honduras. And all of those are directed at kind of crime prevention, community policing, gang violence mitigation, I mean, trying to get at these root issues - that is what's behind the decision of so many of these parents to send their kids.

And so as you can imagine, it's kind of hard to suddenly make Honduras a safe place to be. That's something that's going to take years, if not decades, to do. And so in the immediate short-term, what they're doing is just trying to get them to keep them there as much as they can. And then, you know, obviously here stateside, as Chris has seen down there, they're trying to get these kids to other facilities further from the border - facilities that are better equipped to take care of children. And that's become a completely different headache for the administration as they've tried to identify facilities around the country that can accommodate these children and care for them both just from a moral standpoint but also just legally. There are certain requirements that the government has to meet when they're taken care of these kids. And because of the flood, they're looking everywhere, from Virginia, to Baltimore, to Illinois, down here in Miami - they've sent some kids down here. So they're really kind of working on this on several different levels.

MARTIN: Chris, we have about a minute left. Tell us what else you know about what exactly they're trying to do with those facilities there. Are they trying to adapt those facilities, or are they really just trying to move people out as quickly as possible?

SHERMAN: Yes, in the case of the Fort Brown facility, they've absolutely tried to adapt it for the children. They have about 500 kids there on any given day. They've brought in assistance from FEMA, so now the kids get taken outside in groups for showers in a shower trailer. They get about half an hour of exercise, which is, you know, kicking around a ball, throwing a bar in the side yard. The younger kids get to do some coloring.

But otherwise, they're spending, you know, about 23 hours a day inside these holding cells until they can be transferred to the Health and Human Services Department, which puts them in a shelter atmosphere which is, you know, much better prepared and equipped to deal with children over a longer period.

MARTIN: That was Chris Sherman from the Associated Press. We reached him at his office in McAllen, Texas. Also with us, Alan Gomez. He reports on immigration for USA Today, and he was kind enough to join us from member station WLRN in Miami. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

GOMEZ: Thank you.

SHERMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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