US plans child migrant processing center in Texas

By Christopher Sherman

Associated Press

Published: Monday, June 23 2014 7:32 p.m. MDT

This June 18, 2014, file photo shows children detainees sleeping in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility in Brownsville,Texas. Thousands of immigrant children crossing alone into the U.S. can live in American cities, attend public schools and possibly work here for years without consequences. The chief reasons are an overburdened, deeply flawed system of immigration courts and a 2002 law intended to protect children's welfare, an Associated Press investigation finds.

(Eric Gay, Pool, Associated Press)

Enlarge photo»

McALLEN, Texas — The U.S. government plans to turn an empty 55,000-square foot warehouse in South Texas into a processing facility for unaccompanied children who have entered the country illegally, according to construction permits obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request Monday.

The permits reveal plans for four fence-enclosed pods inside a corrugated steel warehouse in McAllen that could eventually accommodate about 1,000 children. The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

More than 52,000 unaccompanied minors have been arrested since October after entering the United States illegally, a 99 percent increase over the same period a year earlier. About three-quarters of those children have been arrested in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas.

U.S. law requires that the children be processed and transferred to custody of the Health and Human Services Department within 72 hours of their arrest. The wave of children has overwhelmed Border Patrol stations in South Texas that are ill-equipped to house children for an extended period of time, so Homeland Security has been flying planeloads of children to Arizona for processing at a facility in Nogales before sending them to shelters around the country.

The new processing facility would be less than a mile from the Rio Grande Valley's busiest Border Patrol station. Floor plans show rows of cells with unsecured doors on either side of open "interaction/play" areas. Boys and girls would be separated and portable toilets would be installed.

"Minors will be staged here until processing is completed and then they (will be) moved to a different location," according to a fire protection engineering analysis submitted by the U.S. General Services Administration.

That agency, which provides buildings for government operations, signed a one-year lease for the property.

The documents do not indicate when renovations would be complete. City attorney Kevin Pagan said McAllen had expedited the permitting process.

Most of the children are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Many are fleeing widespread gang violence, and some are looking to reunite with parents already in the United States.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson wrote an open letter to Central American parents warning them of the dangers of such a journey and emphasizing that the children could be deported. "The criminal smuggling networks that you pay to deliver your child to the United States have no regard for his or her safety and well-being - to them, your child is a commodity to be exchanged for a payment," the letter said.

Associated Press writer Juan Carlos Llorca in El Paso contributed to this report.

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