ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
A new emergency shelter for migrant children has opened in Carrizo Springs, Texas. That should mean fewer children will be kept in Border Patrol holding cells, which were never meant for kids. Critics say the massive emergency shelters are like child prison camps. NPR's John Burnett toured the new facility today and joins us now. Hi, John.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Tell us what it's like there. What did you see?
BURNETT: Well, you know, this is my third tour now - one of these big emergency shelters for immigrant children. And, you know, if some critics are calling them prison in concentration camps, that is not what you see. They basically create a self-contained town out here in the South Texas brush country. They've got their own generators, a fire department, an infirmary, big cafeteria, dormitories that used to house oilfield workers, soccer field and on and on and one staffer for every eight kids. They take English classes, and they're learning the Pledge of Allegiance.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: ...With liberty...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: ...And justice...
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: ...And justice...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: ...For all.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: ...For all.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Muy bien.
BURNETT: These emergency shelters are too big and too expensive, and that's why they're trying to open five more smaller licensed shelters around the country - so they won't have to show up at these places and give tours to reporters and deal with protesters at the gate.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. Remind us of the controversy that led to this moment.
BURNETT: Well, first of all, Ari, the numbers are dropping. HHS is taking in about 160 to 170 kids a day. That's down by more half than they were just two months ago. Remember; May was the peak month. Customs and Border Protection were apprehending 144,000 unauthorized border-crossers that month, and around 11,000 of them were unaccompanied kids.
The way it works is CBP is not supposed to detain immigrant kids in these barren jail cells for more than three days. It's supposed to turn them over to Health and Human Services. But we've all heard the shocking stories of these kids being kept in these Border Patrol cells for two and three weeks in filthy clothes with no showers, no hot food, no adult supervision.
And the good news is today, HHS says there are no kids in Border Patrol cells that are staying there for more than 72 hours. And it's showing off his gleaming, air-conditioned child shelter down here in South Texas. But the real story is, why didn't they do this two months ago when they needed it?
SHAPIRO: Yeah. What did officials tell you when you asked them that question?
BURNETT: So even Kevin Dinnin says the government should have done more and sooner. And he's chairman of BCFS. That's the San Antonio nonprofit that runs this camp. He spoke to reporters today inside the command center.
KEVIN DINNIN: Maybe it's too much too late given the May numbers. It should have been here in May so kids weren't in the Border Patrol jail cells.
SHAPIRO: That doesn't quite answer the question why they didn't open the shelter earlier. Did he give a reason?
BURNETT: Well, the numbers were growing all last year, and yet both the Border Patrol and Health and Human Services were caught completely flat-footed. So we had this classic case of two federal agencies pointing fingers at each other, saying, hey, it's their fault. CBP was saying that Health and Human Services wasn't taking the kids fast enough, which meant they backed up in these awful holding cells.
And yet the chief spokesman for Health and Human Services, Mark Weber, told us today, we accepted every child that was referred to us by the Border Patrol. So there's this big disconnect. But Weber added this caveat about the huge numbers that they saw in May.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARK WEBER: I do want to say with 10,000 children crossing the border, all of our systems were overwhelmed. Border Patrol, HHS - it was a mad scramble to make sure that we had the capacity to accept those children who were being referred to us from the Border Patrol.
SHAPIRO: It sounds like this shelter is an improvement on the conditions that kids were being held...
SHAPIRO: ...In before. What are immigrant advocates saying about this?
BURNETT: Well, they're still controversial. They say that the kids are being held there too long, and they should be released to their parents who live here or their relatives who live here in the U.S.
SHAPIRO: Because many of them do have family members in the country who would like to take them in.
BURNETT: They do. And on the other side, this is the most expensive type of child shelter the government runs. It's 775 per child per day, which is, like, $800,000 a day for all these kids.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's John Burnett. Thank you very much.
BURNETT: You're welcome, Ari.
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