About 180 immigrant children caught illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border unaccompanied are being housed at a new temporary care center at Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme.
Since the housing facility opened at the base Friday, the number of immigrants — ages 13 to 17 — has more than doubled from 75 and is expected to grow to the building’s maximum capacity of 575 children as early as Tuesday.
￼The children are expected to be housed in the 42,000-square-foot converted warehouse for up to 120 days until they are placed with a vetted sponsor or family member in the United States while their immigration case is pending.
Twelve children already have been placed with a sponsor or family member since the opening of the shelter, which is operated by the Administration for Children and Families, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Naval Base Ventura County is one of three military sites nationwide designated to temporarily house the immigrant children in response to an overwhelming increase in unaccompanied minors crossing the border — particularly from Central America — a number expected to reach 60,000 this year.
The other facilities are at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio and Fort Sill in Oklahoma.
“The surge of unaccompanied children” crossing the southwest border “correlates with an overall rise in illegal migration into the Rio Grande Valley,” Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said Thursday at a news conference in Washington, D.C.
Customs and Border Protection detained 24,000 unaccompanied minors — the majority from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — illegally crossing the border in 2013. By May, the number for this year already had reached 47,000, Johnson said.
“This is a problem of humanitarian proportions,” Johnson said.
Robert Garcia, the regional administrator for the Administration for Children and Families, led about 10 members of the media through the Port Hueneme shelter Thursday morning.
During the hour-long tour, reporters were not allowed to interact with children or staff members at the shelter, could not take photographs or record audio, were discouraged from asking questions, and were frequently referred to the ACF spokesman based in Washington, D.C., for more information.
“The health and safety and well-being of the kids are paramount to us,” Garcia said. “They’re far from home and it’s difficult for them.”
While most of children are from Central America, a few are from Mexico, ACF spokesman Kenneth Wolfe said in an email.
When children are detained at the border, they are medically cleared by U.S. Customs and Border Protection after being checked for scabies and lice, undergoing a mental health assessment and receiving vaccines.
Within 72 hours of being detained, the minors are turned over to Health and Human Services and taken to one of the agency’s 100 permanent shelters. Now they can also be taken to one of the three temporary shelters, including at Port Hueneme.
There are 45 Spanish-speaking case managers working at the local shelter, along with an on-site medical team of nearly 50 people.
Texas-based Southwest Key Programs was contracted to staff the facility and held a career fair in Oxnard the weekend before the shelter opened. It was looking to fill hundreds of jobs, according to its website.
“The adults are with the kids all the time,” Garcia said. “They’re always being supervised.”
While the Navy housing facility once acted as temporary living quarters for men and women preparing to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan, it is now filled with teenagers waiting to be reunited with a familiar face in a country far from home.
Led by a staff member, the children walk in small groups in single-file lines through the halls adorned with their own artwork depicting flags of their native countries and posters of American superheroes. The air conditioning is kept off to more closely resemble conditions in Central America.
Most of the girls wear light pink hooded sweatshirts, bluejeans or sweatpants, and tennis shoes. The boys are in light gray.
Their day starts early at 5:45 a.m. and continues with a carefully planned schedule that includes three meals, physical education, learning basic English and math, time for art and playing outside, vocational classes, specific shower times and a nightly movie. Lights out by 9:30 p.m.
The children are separated by gender — about two-thirds of them are male — and grouped with others of similar age into one of the shelter’s 10 dormitories that hold 40 to 70 beds each.
The rows of closely aligned bunk beds are spotless — the beds are neatly made, belongings are kept in hidden storage spaces and stuffed animals sit on top of colorful blankets.
Ping-pong and foosball tables are waiting to be played with in a recreation room equipped with large couches, beanbag chairs and a variety of board games. Two small soccer fields are nearing completion.
Children sit in groups of six to eat their meals at tables covered in bright orange table cloths under a large tented area that has been decorated with strings of colorful papier-mâché squares and stocked with a variety of hot sauces.
“We’re trying to make kids as comfortable as possible,” Garcia said.
— Stephanie Snyder is a reporter with the Ventura County Star.