LONG BEACH, Calif. (NewsNation Now) — A federal emergency shelter in California is starting to receive immigrant children from border facilities in what advocates hope will be an improvement in their care, amid new video of more migrants entering America in the dark of night and more children crossing the border.
Countless videos of children left near the U.S.-Mexico border have been released. Earlier this month, two little girls were seen in a video being dropped over a border fence near Santa Teresa, New Mexico. Two children were also found by Border Patrol on the Rio Grande, clinging to a small island near Eagle Pass, Texas.
A safe place for those children to safely wait to be reunited with their families opened at the Long Beach Convention Center on Thursday. As many as 150 children were expected at the latest in a series of sites set up across the country following a rise in the number of immigrant children stopped alone on the Mexico border, the Department of Health and Human Services said.
After border facilities grew crowded with children who said they had not been given showers for days, the department started opening large-scale temporary shelters to house these minors until they can be released to relatives who can care for them in the U.S.
The center in Long Beach is expected to be able to hold up to 1,000 children. Officials were given a tour of the site, which had books, stuffed animals and backpacks laid out on cots and butterfly decorations displayed on the walls. There was a recreation area with soccer nets, board games and large screens to watch movies.
Children will receive three or four hours of daily classroom time and get to play outdoors. They are expected to be released to family on average in a week to 10 days, Mayor Robert Garcia said. He added that he was told by federal officials that the site could prove to be a model for how to make the shelters as welcoming as possible.
“It looks like a place where children can be,” Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, told reporters after the tour.
With more than 20,000 immigrant children currently in government custody, U.S. officials have been scrambling to open such facilities.
The government failed to prepare for an increase in mostly Central American children traveling alone as President Joe Biden ended some of his predecessor’s hardline immigration policies. The Biden administration decided against quickly expelling unaccompanied minors from the country as the Trump administration had done for eight months.
Children are initially taken to border facilities that aren’t equipped to house them for long periods of time. From there, they are being sent to these shelters while case workers assess which relatives are suitable to take them.
The minors will then go through immigration court proceedings to see whether they are eligible to stay in the U.S. or must return to their home countries.
The site in Long Beach is being operated by DRC, a disaster management company, and expected to mostly house girls, said Bonnie Preston, acting regional director for Health and Human Services. She said she could not immediately say how much it would cost to operate the site.
“We’re really in an emergency situation,” she said. “The budgets are, you know, rolling out as we see what the need is, and the budget will meet the need to keep the children safe.”
Lindsay Toczylowski, executive director of Immigrant Defenders Law Center, said she was pleased the shelter had already been equipped with workspace for attorneys to come in and meet with children to explain how the U.S. immigration system works and discuss their legal cases. She said it was clear efforts were taken to make the large site feel comfortable for children, but hopefully, they will only be there a very short time.
“This will be a safe place for kids to be, but it should be temporary,” she said.
Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C. Thursday, a group of Texas lawmakers introduced the Bipartisan Border Solutions Act, which would add four processing facilities at the most high-traffic areas along the border and provide funding to hire workers. Lawmakers also want to hire more immigration judges and asylum officers to help process claims faster and increase efforts to deter people without legitimate asylum claims from making the trip to the border in the first place.
“Right now, there are no consequences for illegally coming to our border and entering our country because they simply overwhelmed our capacity to deal with it,” said Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.
“The bottom line is, we’re trying something. The concept that we have is well thought of. We’ve got some concepts that are common sense and we want to give it a try,” said Democratic Sen. Henry Cuellar of Texas.
The three Texas lawmakers backing the bill say they are open to other suggestions, but the most important thing is getting something on the table to start negotiating.
Elsewhere in D.C. on Thursday, Vice President Kamala Harris hosted a discussion with experts about the countries that make up the Northern Triangle — Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras — to talk about resolving the crisis.
“To be effective in that region among the work that we can do together, we have to give people a sense of hope. Sense of hope that help is on the way. A sense of hope that if they stay, things will get better,” Harris said.
Harris also announced that she’s planning her first trip to the Northern Triangle later this year, with stops to Mexico and Guatemala in June.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.