The Trump administration’s new “zero tolerance” policy calling for the prosecution of everyone who illegally enters the United States has led to the separation of parents from their children at the border, as parents are sent to jail and children are placed in government custody. It’s estimated that more than 1,358 children have been separated from their parents since October, and now for the first time since the Trump administration announced the policy, journalists have been allowed inside a shelter for the children, who are now deemed “unaccompanied minors.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services arranged for the media tour on Wednesday, less than two weeks after Senator Jeff Merkley was denied entry. Casa Padre, the facility in Brownsville, Texas, is the largest licensed facility in the country. It was set up in a former Walmart and now houses about 1,500 boys ages 10 to 17. Officials say the average stay is 49 days.
The surge of Central American children seeking refuge in the U.S. is an issue that predates the Trump administration, but the new policy is exacerbating the problem by making children who came with their parents “unaccompanied.” Casa Padre was in operation before the “zero tolerance” policy went into effect, and according to the Washington Post, about 5 percent of the boys held there were separated from their parents.
Southwest Key Programs is licensed to operate 26 similar facilities in three states, housing 5,129 immigrant children — nearly half of the roughly 11,200 kids currently in federal custody.
“We’re trying to do the best that we can taking care of these children. Our goal ultimately is to reunite kids with their families,” said Juan Sanchez, Southwest Key’s founder and chief executive. “We’re not a detention center … What we operate are shelters that take care of kids. It’s a big, big difference.”
Jacob Soboroff, who toured the facility with fellow journalists, tweeted about his experience on Wednesday night and filed a report on MSNBC. He said that while the children seem well cared for, “effectively these kids are incarcerated.”
ABC News described the conditions:
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 are given classes on U.S. history, and there are murals of U.S. presidents throughout the building. One detail that drew a tremendous amount of attention on Twitter was a mural of Trump in the cafeteria, which features the quote, “Sometimes by losing a battle you find a new way to win the war.” (After some outlets suggested that the building was riddled with Trump murals, Soboroff clarified on Twitter that Trump is only in one — but it’s still creepy.)
As MSNBC’s Chris Hayes noted on Twitter, this is only one facility, operators had plenty of time to prepare for the visit, and it houses older children. Journalists were not allowed to interview the children, and we don’t know how the babies and toddlers being taken from their parents under Trump’s policy are being cared for.
Several Democratic members of the House of Representatives joined activists on Wednesday to protest the family separation policy. First they staged a sit-in outside the headquarters of the Customs and Border Protection agency, then they briefly blocked a street near the White House security perimeter. Other protests of the policy are scheduled throughout the country on Thursday.