REYNOSA, Mexico (AP) – Hundreds of migrant children will be sheltered at a naval facility in California amid a spike in the number of minors caught crossing the border alone, authorities said Tuesday.
A 42,000-square-foot building in Port Hueneme previously used to house naval reservists before they deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan will be used as a temporary shelter, said Vance Vasquez, a spokesman for Naval Base Ventura County.
The facility, which has bed space for 570 people, was remodeled in 2007 and is equipped with showers, bathrooms and recreation spaces for TV watching and games. It has been closed for more than a year, Vasquez said.
Federal officials say children could start arriving as soon as this week at the facility 60 miles west of Los Angeles.
The government is also housing migrant children at a military base in Texas.
Children will be flown to the Port Hueneme site from other shelters while being cleared for transfer to sponsors, said Laura Goulding, a spokeswoman for the Administration for Children and Families, a division of the Health and Human Services Department. They will receive English language instruction, arts and crafts activities, and recreation at the shelter, she said.
Goulding said most children are expected to remain at the base less than the average stay of 35 days.
It was not immediately clear what would happen to the children's deportation cases once they are transferred to Port Hueneme. A message was left for the Executive Office for Immigration Review.
Officials estimate as many as 60,000 children, mostly from Central America, could be caught at the border this year, which would be a nearly 10-fold increase since 2011.
Rampant crime and poverty across Central America and a desire to reunite with parents or other relatives are thought to be driving many of the young migrants. While the children face deportation proceedings if they are caught in the U.S., many have been able to win permission from an immigration judge to stay.
In the past eight months, 47,000 unaccompanied children have been apprehended along the border in the U.S. Southwest.
More than 11,000 of those were Mexican children, who are generally quickly sent back across the border. But nearly 35,000 were from the Central American countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. By contrast, just 6,560 child migrants were put in U.S. shelters during all of 2011.
President Barack Obama called the surge a crisis Monday, saying the influx has overwhelmed the network of U.S. shelters for young migrants. He appointed the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Craig Fugate, to lead the government's response. The Obama administration has asked Congress for $1.4 billion in extra funding to help house, feed and transport child migrants and has turned to the Defense Department to temporarily house some of them.
Detained youngsters are transferred within 72 hours to the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement to be housed in shelters until they can be reunited with parents or guardians. Officials then begin searching for relatives or other potential guardians in the U.S. The average stay for a child in a U.S. shelter was 45 days last year. Most are reunited with family to wait for their immigration cases to move forward.
A variety of reasons put young migrants on the path to the U.S.
"The children don't only travel because of poverty or reunification. In a recent study we have detected that another important theme is migration because of insecurity," said Julia Gonzalez, coordinator of the nonprofit National Bureau for Migration in Guatemala.
A study released in March by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said about half of 400 kids interviewed reported they had experienced or been threatened with serious harm. About 300 of those interviewed were from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — countries that accounted for about 90 percent of the children cared for by the Office of Refugee Resettlement last year.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.