For the first time since the Trump administration announced its “zero-tolerance” policy on illegal immigration, a small group of journalists was allowed into the country’s largest licensed shelter for undocumented children.
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Imagine being 10 years old, separated from your mother or father, not understanding why, and being taken to a hulking, windowless building filled with 1,500 other kids you’ve never met.
You’re allowed to make two phone calls a week — one of which hopefully is to a detained parent now thousands of miles away.
That’s the reality we saw.
The shelter is clean and well staffed, with activities to keep the kids busy and their minds off their unfortunate situation.
The kids we saw, for the most part, looked content. No crying, no one slouched in a corner alone.
But this was also a media tour, and journalists weren’t allowed to interview any of the children. Who knows what happens when the lights go out and they’re left alone with their thoughts?
The facility is called Casa Padre. It’s in Brownsville, Texas, in what was once a Walmart. About 1,500 boys aged 10 to 17 now call it home.
It’s the largest licensed facility in the country. The vast majority of the boys crossed illegally and unaccompanied, but Casa Padre is nearing capacity as more children are separated from their parents at the border and shipped there.
On this night, 1,469 boys slept there. The official capacity is 1,497. An extra bed has been added to each room, which means there are five bunks inside a 10-foot-by-24-foot space.
The children get three daily meals and two snacks. They have access to video games, pool tables and classes where they can learn English and U.S. civics.
The children are each assigned a clinician to help them deal with separation trauma and mental-health issues.
The children spend about two hours outside — one hour in the morning, one in the afternoon. There are soccer and basketball courts.
The children, nonetheless, spend most of their day inside a converted big-bog store, the walls of which are plastered with murals of U.S. presidents quotations from them.
The quotation attached to a picture of Donald Trump reads: “Sometimes by losing a battle you find a new way to win the war.”
Southwest Key Programs, which ran the tour of the shelter for the group of journalists, operates 26 similar facilities, all of which are nearing capacity. Emergency shelters soon may need to be built to accommodate the inflow of children.
The average length of stay for an undocumented child at a facility like Casa Padre is about 56 days.
Officials at Casa Padre said: “The goal is to reunite families.”