POMONA, CALIFORNIA – Teenagers chased soccer balls across grassy fields. The beds in the dorms were organized in small pods with a TV in each section. Some children read on the cots, while others played cards nearby with social workers.
On Friday, the Biden administration took a rare look inside an emergency shelter it opened to house migrant children who crossed the US-Mexico border on their own, calling the facility Model California among its large-scale sites.
Health and Social Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, whose agency is responsible for looking after migrant children, was joined by elected officials as he visited the shelter housing nearly 1,400 children at the Los Angeles County in the city of Pomona. Two Associated Press reporters were allowed to accompany them and shared notes and photos from the tour with other news outlets as part of a pool deal.
The facility was in stark contrast to conditions reported at other emergency shelters, where children complained of foul-smelling food, little outdoor recreation space, and having to spend their days sleeping doing nothing and without knowing when they would be handed over to relatives in the United States.
“We see this as a model,” Becerra told reporters after visiting the Pomona facility, which has a 2,787 square meter air-conditioned room with foosball and ping-pong tables, blocks of wood and other games. Large signs in Spanish above the entrance to the room read “welcome”, “hope” and “love”.
In a room filled with social workers, Becerra spoke to the children in Spanish about when they would be reunited with their families.
“We are trying to do it as soon as possible, but in a safe way,” he said.
Within four hours of arriving at the shelter, each child can use the call center, a room with brightly colored paintings of butterflies and sea creatures. After that, they can call their families twice a week.
Next to the call area, dozens of blue, pink and silver stars with names almost covered a wall. An official said staff members display a star with a child’s name when they leave the facility.
“You’re running out of space,” Becerra noted.
Shelter staff roam the dormitories and outdoor areas to be on alert in the event of an emergency. Teachers at the Pomona Unified School District give 90-minute lessons twice a week to each child, with half of the time spent developing their English skills.
With its existing buildings and green spaces, the Pomona site had some advantages over places like the Fort Bliss military base near El Paso, Texas, where the largest government shelter was erected as a tents from scratch, Becerra said. Lawyers said Fort Bliss, which Becerra visited a few days ago without allowing media to accompany him, was particularly problematic.
“It’s not easy to lift something like this quickly and do it right, but I think you can see it’s a place where kids can be healthy and safe,” Becerra told About the installation of Pomona.
The government set up temporary shelters this spring as tens of thousands of children crossed the border alone. Of the 14 centers opened, two were closed because they did not meet government standards; others have closed as more children are returned to their families in the United States or to facilities offering higher standards of care.
While emergency shelters are widely seen as an improvement over border facilities full of children, the Biden administration faces increasing pressure to address concerns that migrant children are languishing in unlicensed centers rather than to be quickly reunited with their families in the United States, causing anxiety and panic attacks.
Republicans say the administration has been caught off guard by the border situation and President Joe Biden’s immigration policies have encouraged unaccompanied children to come. Nearly 19,000 children traveling alone were recovered along the border in March, by far the highest month on record.
Advocates say no shelter can replace a family or an approved facility in terms of child care. They say the emergency sites were meant to be a safe place to house the children for a few weeks to give the government time to contact and vet their loved ones. People without families in the United States are supposed to be sent to a state-approved facility.
As of this week, the average stay in temporary shelters was 37 days, with the network of facilities filled to just over half of its capacity, according to Health and Social Services data obtained by the AP.
More than half of the 5,300 children in emergency shelters have close relatives in the United States, such as a parent or grandparent. No such contact has been identified for a third of young people on these sites, according to the data.
Immigration attorney Karina Ramos of the Immigrant Defenders Law Center in California visits the Pomona shelter twice a week. Of the 2,605 children who came there, more than half were reunited with their families, the Becerra agency said.
“Question number one is, ‘When am I going to come home?’” Ramos said, which is “obviously understandable”.
But Ramos said the kids usually don’t complain. Most of the residents of the Pomona facility are teenagers, with less than 300 children under the age of 12. Most come from Guatemala and Honduras.
“It’s definitely not Fort Bliss,” Ramos said. “The kids are generally active, and they’re happy, and they come to talk to us.”
In transcripts of interviews conducted by attorneys from March through early June and filed in federal court in Los Angeles, more than a dozen migrant children described their desperation to escape emergency facilities. In one account, a teenage girl said she had been in Fort Bliss for almost 60 days and just ate popsicles and juice because the food was terrible.
Becerra said conditions have improved in recent weeks thanks to additional spirituality, recreation, education and mental health services. The Fort Bliss shelter was also being reconfigured to become a more child-friendly pod system with single beds instead of double beds. Other social workers have been added, speeding up family reunification.
As a result of the progress, Becerra said the number of children her agency cares for has grown from more than 22,000 to just over 14,400, more than half of them in licensed shelters. His agency announced the closure of four emergency centers this summer, with Pomona and Fort Bliss remaining open.