CARRIZO SPRINGS, Tex. (Reuters) – U.S. border officers were detaining about 200 unaccompanied children across the southern border on Wednesday, down from more than 2,500 in May, thanks to congressional funding increases, a senior border agency official said.
The reduction follows a pair of government inspections that revealed overcrowding and filthy conditions at border detention facilities, inflaming the debate about President Donald Trump’s hardline immigration policies.
Almost all unaccompanied children picked up by border officers are being turned over to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) officials within 72 hours of apprehension, the official told reporters on a conference call, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Criticism mounted after government inspectors and immigration lawyers found evidence that children were being held long past legal limits at facilities not equipped to house them.
Increasing numbers of mostly Central American families and children traveling alone – many seeking asylum in the United States – have overwhelmed authorities at a time when the Trump administration is pushing to limit legal and illegal immigration.
Border officers are turning children over to facilities run or funded by HHS such as a tent camp that just opened in Carrizo Spring, Texas, about 80 miles northwest of Laredo. It will eventually have the capacity for 1,344 children.
The Carrizo Spring camp, built in about a month, started receiving children on June 30 and currently houses 225. It is operated by San Antonio-based BCFS, a company that runs six other HHS-funded facilities.
Officials gave reporters a tour of the facility on Wednesday, showing clean dormitories and staff doing laundry. Children will receive bilingual education while being detained, officials said.
A case worker is assigned for every six children, who are allowed at least two 10-minute phone calls per week, officials said.
“I like how they have treated us,” said one teenage boy from El Salvador during a brief period when reporters were allowed to speak with detainees. “The English classes are a lot better than what I’m used to.”
The scene was in stark contrast to images provided in reports on a May 7 visit here by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General. They showed detainees being held in Border Patrol facilities where they were denied proper sleeping arrangements or hygiene.
From late May to early June, border authorities held about 2,500 to 2,700 children who were detained after crossing the border by themselves or who were separated from adults who were not their parents, the official said on Wednesday.
“To see these numbers currently at about 200 is very positive. That’s a huge difference since HHS has received their funding,” the official said.
The U.S. Congress in June approved a $4.5 billion emergency supplemental funding bill aimed at improving conditions at the border, including $2.88 billion for HHS to provide shelter and care for unaccompanied children.
A legal settlement and anti-trafficking laws mandate that authorities transfer unaccompanied children traveling without a parent or legal guardian to specialized facilities run by HHS.
As Carrizo Springs becomes available, the government is closing another of the so-called temporary influx shelters, in Homestead, Florida, which has held up to 2,000 migrant children.
Homestead stopped receiving children this week and will shut down once all its children are placed elsewhere, said HHS spokesman Mark Webber.
“Having temporary influx shelters is not the best situation, but it’s better than Border Patrol stations,” Webber said.
Reporting by Daniel Trotta in New York and Julio-Cesar Chavez in Carrizo Springs, Texas; editing by Frank McGurty and Grant McCool