SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Reporters got a rare glimpse inside a temporary shelter for migrant children in far west Texas on Friday. The facility opened in June as a series of huge tents on a remote stretch of desert just north of the Mexican border. Its capacity has rapidly expanded since then. It can now contain up to 3,800 children. Monica Ortiz Uribe tells us what's driving the need for more shelter space and what it's like inside.
MONICA ORTIZ URIBE, BYLINE: The shelter is spread out in an L-like shape with two segregated wings - one for boys and another for girls. Shelter staff dart about in four-wheeled utility vehicles. It's run like a mini city with its own ambulances, firefighters, urgent care clinic and a sanitation crew. At both ends are soccer fields. The teens, ages 13 through 17, sleep on bunk beds in large, air-conditioned tents. Friday's lunch menu was red tamales, refried beans and rice. Migrant children are spending more time in the shelter system, an average of 59 days, twice as long as last year's average. That's straining capacity at roughly 100 federally funded shelters nationwide and created the need for more bed space at Tornillo.
MARK GREENBERG: We now have the largest number of children in shelter in the history of the program.
ORTIZ URIBE: Mark Greenberg worked in the Obama administration's Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS. He helped oversee the migrant child program.
GREENBERG: But it's not because arrivals are at a historic high. It's because it is taking much longer for children to be released from the shelter system.
ORTIZ URIBE: One reason, says Greenberg, is because some of the children's relatives are reluctant to claim them. HHS is now sharing sponsor information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE has arrested at least 40 sponsors.
MARK WEBER: Really appreciate it.
ORTIZ URIBE: Mark Weber is a spokesman for HHS. He acknowledged that their stricter vetting process is causing delays.
WEBER: We don't want to place the child in a home where there's a potential threat. So we have to balance speed with safety.
ORTIZ URIBE: Weber also blamed the delay on the influx of children crossing the border. Their numbers are slightly up from last year but still significantly below the record high set in 2014.
JENNIFER PODKUL: The government is running an emergency shelter at a time when there is no emergency.
ORTIZ URIBE: Jennifer Podkul is the director of policy for a legal organization that represents kids in immigration court.
PODKUL: Even if when you have an ORR program that's especially designed for this population, that caters to them, that does have programming that's age appropriate, it's still not in the best interests of the child to be separated from caring family and in a stable environment outside of detention.
ORTIZ URIBE: Kids who are close to being released to their sponsors are moved to Tornillo to free up space at other more permanent shelters. More than half of them, close to 900, are waiting on the results of fingerprint testing on their sponsors before they can go home. For NPR News, I'm Monica Ortiz Uribe in Tornillo, Texas.