‘These Are Not Kids Kept In Cages’: Inside A Texas Shelter For Immigrant Youth

Listen Now

Updated at 7:28 p.m. ET

Casa Padre is a former Walmart Super Center converted into living, recreation and dining quarters for 1,469 immigrant boys, ages 10 to 17. Located in Brownsville, Texas, across from a pizza joint and a McDonald's, it is the largest government-contracted youth shelter in the country. On Wednesday, reporters were allowed a rare glimpse inside.

The sprawling shelter was opened in March 2017 by the Texas nonprofit Southwest Key.

Shelters for minors are now 95 percent full and officials are even considering housing young immigrants temporarily at U.S. military facilities. Casa Padre has room for just 28 more children. The federal government is looking for additional places to put the surge of immigrant children coming across the border seeking asylum.

Ninety percent of the residents at Casa Padre traveled to the United States alone seeking protection; the remainder were separated from their families at the border under a controversial new policy by the Trump administration. More than 10,000 migrant youngsters are being held at shelters like this throughout the country.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration's policy of separating families is coming under fire from both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill.

"We don't want kids to be separated from their parents," said House Speaker Paul Ryan, as quoted by the Associated Press.

Another Republican, Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, tweeted, "I am asking the White House to keep families together as much as we can."

"This is barbaric. This is not what America is. But this is the policy of the Trump administration," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

The family separation policy also came under criticism from the Southern Baptist Convention and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, according to The Hill.

While the family separation policy is debated in Washington, those most heavily impacted remain detained in facilities like Southwest Key.

Though the boys are confined in this 250,000-square-foot facility, they don't look unhappy. They waved, smiled and said "hola" to a group of visiting journalists. Adults are everywhere. The ratio is one counselor to eight children, to keep them in line and watch for behavioral and emotional problems.

On Wednesday, the boys were shooting baskets, kicking soccer balls, playing video games, sitting in classrooms learning U.S. government, learning tai chi and chowing down on a bland meal of chicken and mixed vegetables. On the walls of the facility are murals of U.S. presidents, patriotic slogans, and lots of Pokémon posters.

"We want to show you that these are not kids kept in cages," said Southwest Key spokeswoman Alexia Rodriguez, with a smile. "We provide them excellent care."

There are occasional runaways. "It's to be expected," said Juan Sanchez, the founder and CEO. He did not say whether Casa Padre has housed any members of the violent Central American street gang MS-13. The Trump administration has warned that they're coming across the border to make mayhem in the United States. Violent youths are sent back to the Office of Refugee Resettlement for placement elsewhere, Sanchez said.

The kids spend an average of 49 days in Casa Padre, which is contracted by the Department of Health and Human Services. Then they're turned over to family members or foster families.

"Our goal is to reunite kids with their families," Rodriguez said. The administration has announced that it will begin fingerprinting family members who receive these unaccompanied immigrant children to make sure the sponsors are not in the country illegally. Immigrant advocates fear that this enforcement tactic will make sponsoring families less willing to step forward, meaning children could end up staying longer in shelters like this one.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.