San Antonio Is Now Ground Zero For A Growing Refugee Crisis

A barracks at Joint Base San Antonio—Lackland has been converted into a temporary shelter to house up to 1,200 children. - Department of Health and Human Services
Department of Health and Human Services
A barracks at Joint Base San Antonio—Lackland has been converted into a temporary shelter to house up to 1,200 children.

The escalating number of Central America children fleeing their home nations and making the life-threatening trek northward to the United States, alone, has sparked a humanitarian crisis along the southwestern border, the White House announced earlier this month.

These “unaccompanied” children are coming in such large numbers that they are overloading the U.S. immigration system, White House officials say, prompting the Obama administration to set up an emergency command to deal with the problem.

As part of that effort, a barracks at Joint Base San Antonio—Lackland has been converted into a temporary shelter to house up to 1,200 children. That facility is being operated under federal contract by a locally based nonprofit, BCFS Health and Human Services.

“We were tapped because of our emergency management capabilities,” BCFS spokesperson Krista Piferrer told the Current

The children now being housed at the local Air Force base represent only the tip of a spear that has pierced the shallow membrane of the nation’s already badly wounded immigration system. They are the tragic symptom of a refugee crisis along our southwestern border that is not unlike what we hear or read about in other parts of the world, where violence and poverty induce a mass exodus of people to flee toward what they perceive as a better-off land. 

Most of these unaccompanied children are caught while attempting to cross into the U.S. at the Texas border, federal officials said in a telephone media conference earlier this month. And they are the lucky ones, given a large number of these child refugees disappear during their perilous journey—often the victims of human traffickers, bandits, corrupt officials or sexual predators.

“The increase in unaccompanied children coming from Central America has been happening for several years,” Cecilia Muñoz, White House director of domestic policy, said during the media call. “What’s different this year is the increase is much larger than anticipated. It’s an over-90 percent increase as compared to last year.”

That “bump-up,” Muñoz added, is complicated further by the fact that a large percentage of the kids are under age 13, many of them girls. 

“This is creating an urgent humanitarian situation, which the federal government is moving very swiftly to address,” Muñoz said.

The children now being sent to San Antonio bunk in a three-story, 215,000-square-foot dormitory. The building was constructed in the “late 1960s to early 1970s” and previously housed men and women going through basic military training, JBSA-Lackland spokesman Oscar Balladores said.

“The way it was set up for military use was 20 open-bay dorms with central restrooms on the second and third floors,” Balladores explained. “It also has kitchen and dining areas on the first floor, and offices and classrooms and a laundry area—along with 10 covered areas outside that can be used for assemblies.” 

BCFS, Piferrer confirmed, is providing medical care, food and education services to the children, along with assisting federal officials in finding longer-term placement for them with family, relatives or other sponsors in the states.

But even after they are reunited with family, the children will still face ongoing deportation proceedings in which they are not entitled to an appointed attorney—and must rely on free legal services or hope their families can afford to hire a lawyer. Consequently, most of them—even if they have a sound legal case for remaining in the U.S.—will eventually end up back where they started, once again confronting life in the violence-torn, poverty-stricken homelands from which they fled.

“The immigration process does not stop when they are reunited with parents or other appropriate family members,” Muñoz said. “They end up in removal proceedings, and those decisions are made on a case-by case basis.”


Broken System

U.S. Customs and Border Protection [CBP] figures show the number of unaccompanied children apprehended along the southwestern border through the first eight months of fiscal 2014 alone stood at 47,017 (nearly equivalent to the population of San Marcos, TX). That’s up 92 percent from a total of 24,493 children taken in to custody for all of fiscal 2013. And there is no sign of the surge abating.

“Prior to this [surge], we had made use, and continue to make use, of a network of group homes in Texas and other parts of the country,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [HHS] spokesman Mark H. Greenberg said during the media conference. “Because of increasing numbers of unaccompanied children, we did the reaching out to the Department of Defense for room for additional children [at JBSA-Lackland and another military facility in California that will hold 600 kids and another in Oklahoma that will house between 600 to 1,200 children].”

Greenberg, who is the acting assistant secretary for HHS’ Administration for Children and Families, added that “typically the amount of time [the children] spend in one of our [group-home] facilities is most frequently in the range of 30 to 45 days.” After that, most are placed with a family member or other sponsor in the United States while their deportation proceedings are pending. 

The children are apprehended at the border by CBP, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security. DHS, by law, can hold them no longer than 72 hours prior to turning them over to HHS, which places them in a group-home setting “designed to care for them, where they can get medical treatment or nutrition, mental health services when needed and education,” Greenberg explained.

But that is where the U.S. immigration system is breaking down. The unaccompanied children, arguably the most vulnerable of all undocumented immigrants, are now regularly being warehoused for far longer than 72 hours in CBP holding cells that aren’t designed for children. 

The National Immigrant Justice Center, a nongovernmental organization based in the Midwest, over a two-week period ending January 10 of this year, surveyed 224 children being held in HHS shelters in the Chicago area. NIJC reported the following results regarding the children’s experiences while in CBP custody and their reasons for fleeing their home countries:

•  56 percent were placed in three-point shackles that restrain individuals at the wrist, waste and ankles;
•  71 percent were held in what the refugees call hieleras, or ice boxes, which are cold-room holding-cells, (presumably kept at a low temperature to dampen the smell of human body odor in overcrowded situations);
•  29 children said they were held in CPB holding cells beyond the 72-hour limit prescribed by U.S. law;
•  52 percent reported being victimized by gang violence or domestic abuse;
•  48 percent said they left home because of poverty, due to natural disasters, because they had no family left or to reunite with family in the U.S.

And as this influx of unaccompanied children continues, it is further straining an already stressed system, federal officials concede. 

“We are working on the immediate needs as well as working on the planning efforts to develop sufficient capacity … [so] no child will be in detention, or a holding cells, for more than that 72-hour period,” W. Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Administration [FEMA], said during the media conference call. “… As it is now, we are backing up into facilities that were never designed for children.”

FEMA, a federal disaster-planning agency that is part of DHS, per a presidential order issued in early June is now in charge of coordinating the federal effort to address the child-refugee crisis. 

“We’re focused right now only on making sure we are properly addressing the needs of these children,” Obama domestic policy aide Muñoz said during the media call, after a reporter asked if the children are journeying to the U.S. because “the word is out” that they will be allowed to stay. 

This “word is out” theory is premised on the notion that coyotes—the name given to individuals who help undocumented immigrants cross borders for a fee, often thousands of dollars—are spreading rumors that immigration laws are lax or not being enforced, helping to pull these kids to the U.S. The problem with that theory is that many of the children fleeing desperation in Central America have lost parents to violence, and almost all are mired in deep poverty—a good share living on the streets and separated by vast distances. In short, there is no rational economic “pull” factor that explains adequately the mass migration that has been occurring over the past several years.

“…. In [the federal agencies] talking to these children as they arrive, they don’t appear to be aware of any potential benefit [in terms of U.S. immigration law],” Muñoz added. “It seems quite clear what is driving this is what’s happening in their home countries, in particular the violence or economic conditions and the desire to be reunited with parents in the U.S.”


The Push Factor

Some critics of current U.S. immigration policy argue that it is the militarized nature of the nation’s war on drugs that is actually at the heart of the current refugee crisis along the US/Mexican border.

“U.S. security policy in Mexico and Central America, focused on militarized counter-narcotics efforts known as the war on drugs, has had severely negative effects on the region,” states a recent report by the Mexico City-based Americas Program of the Center for International Policy. “… The report finds that current drug-war policy has dramatically increased the transfer of arms, equipment and military/police training to the region. Concurrently, we find that violence in the region has exploded.”

And that violence is particularly acute in the impoverished nations of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the major source countries for the unaccompanied children arriving in droves at the U.S. border—and now being sheltered in San Antonio. In fact, the homicide rates in those three countries, a recent United Nations report shows, rank among the five highest worldwide. The consequences kids remaining in those nations—their homelands—are grim. 

Another report from a British publication, Forced Migration Review, which is associated with Oxford University, states that criminal gangs in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador associated with the drug trade “prey on children to join their ranks”—recruiting them from schools and murdering them if they refuse to join up.

The high-level federal officials assembled for the media call on June 2 made it clear that setting up the shelter at JBSA-Lackland to house these refugee children is little more than a Band-Aid for a wound in the U.S. immigration system that needs serious surgery. 

“It’s our response to temporarily take care of the unaccompanied children,” HHS’ Greenberg said. 

Muñoz confirmed that the problem is worsening and has reached a flash point along the US/Mexico border. She stressed that the current effort is about protecting the minor-aged migrants.

 “…These are children that have just gone through a harrowing experience alone, and we’re providing for their proper care,” she said.

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