Three vans with 20 migrant children pulled up to a welcome center at the Carrizo Springs emergency shelter Friday as dozens of shelter employees, wearing shirts with Emergency Management emblazoned on the back, stood eagerly to greet them.
“Y’all ready?” one shelter manager asked the group.
As the children descended from the bus, employees clapped and shouted words of welcome in both English and Spanish. Some kids smirked, quietly greeting the employees in return. Others cried, walking while looking down at the ground and covering their faces with their hands.
After they went inside, the children, who crossed the border alone or with relatives who weren’t their parents, would be greeted and escorted into the welcome center, where medics would take their temperatures and give them hand sanitizer and snacks before they watched an orientation video that explained the ground rules for their stay at what was once a housing complex for oilfield workers.
The 1,300-bed facility opened on June 30 to alleviate the dangerous overcrowding, prolonged detention and filthy conditions at some Border Patrol facilities. Around 200 children, all teenagers, are currently housed there.
“No kid should ever go to a Border Patrol jail cell, not even for processing,” said Kevin Dinnin, head of San Antonio-based nonprofit BCFS Health and Human Services, which operates the facility. The company, which ran the juvenile detention complex in Tornillo, outside of El Paso, until it closed in January, could be paid up to $300 million to run the Carrizo Springs facility.
“I don’t think Border Patrol agents were trained to provide care for those kids, and it’s not their job to do child care,” Dinnin said.
The 27-acre property is dotted with dormitories, trailers and tents that serve a variety of purposes — everything from a makeshift barbershop to a call center where children can contact sponsors, usually parents or legal guardians, in the United States.
“We’ve got everything we need here,” said Mark Weber, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the facility and scheduled media tours this week.
Inside, the dormitories are carpeted rooms set up for 12 children — each with a bathroom, kitchen and bunk beds. The walls are covered in drawings of flags, flowers made from tissue paper, and printouts of Jesus. In one room, red, yellow and green tissue paper hung from the air vent, and in another, a girl used the paper to create makeshift curtains in front of her closet.
On average, children spend 45 days or less in federal shelters, according to data from the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Weber said his goal is to get children out within 30 days. Because the children at Carrizo were transferred from other federal shelters — the government oversees 168 other facilities across 23 states — many already began the reunification process prior to their arrival.
Dinnin told The Washington Post that surge shelters like Carrizo Springs are expensive to run because of their large size and the speed with which they need to be fully functioning. Costs are around $750 to $800 per child per day, Dinnin said.
A similar surge shelter is operated in Homestead, Florida, by a for-profit company, Comprehensive Health Services. In May, lawyers with the Center for Human Rights & Constitutional Law called the conditions in the Florida shelter “prison-like.”
Alfredo Padilla, an attorney in Carrizo Springs, said the shelter opening in the town took most residents by surprise. A group of people protested outside the former camp last week; when several were arrested, Padilla said, he offered to represent them.
Carrizo Springs Mayor Wayne Seiple said he hasn’t gotten any phone calls or complaints from residents about the shelter.
“A little more advanced notice [about the shelter opening] would have been great,” Seiple said. “It is what it is. They’re here. We will provide them with whatever we can provide them with and do the best we can with what we’ve got.”