Casa Padre is a former Wal-Mart Super Center converted into living, recreation, dining quarters for 1,469 immigrant boys, ages 10 to 17. Located in Brownsville, Texas, across from a pizza joint and a McDonald's, it is the largest government-contracted youth shelter in the country. On Wednesday, reporters were allowed a rare glimpse inside.
The sprawling shelter was opened in March 2017 by the Texas nonprofit, Southwest Key.
Shelters for minors are now 95 percent full and officials are even considering housing young immigrants temporarily on U.S. military facilities. Casa Padre has room for just 28 more children. The federal government is looking for additional places to put the surge of immigrant children coming across the border seeking asylum.
Ninety percent of the residents at Casa Padre traveled to the United States alone seeking protection; the remainder were separated from their families at the border under a controversial new policy by the Trump administration. More than 10,000 migrant youngsters are being held at shelters like this throughout the country.
Though the boys are confined in this 250,000 square foot facility, they don't look unhappy. They waved, smiled and said "hola" to a group of visiting journalists. Adults are everywhere. The ratio is one counselor to eight children, to keep them in line and watch for behavioral and emotional problems.
On Wednesday, the boys were shooting baskets, kicking soccer balls, playing video games, sitting in classrooms learning U.S. government, learning Tai Chi, and chowing down on a bland meal of chicken and mixed vegetables. On the walls of the facility are murals of U.S. presidents, patriotic slogans, and lots of Pokeman posters.
"We want to show you that these are not kids kept in cages," said Southwest Key Spokesperson Alexia Rodriguez, with a smile. "We provide them excellent care."
There are occasional runaways. "It's to be expected," said Dr. Juan Sanchez, the founder and CEO. He did not say whether Casa Padre has housed any members of the violent Central American street gang, MS-13. The Trump administration has warned that they're coming across the border to make mayhem in the United States. Violent youths are sent back to the Office of Refugee Resettlement for placement elsewhere, Sanchez said.
The kids spend an average of 49 days in Casa Padre, which is contracted by the Department of Health and Human Services. Then they're turned over to family members or foster families.
"Our goal is to reunite kids with their families," Rodriguez said. The administration has announced that it will begin fingerprinting family members who receive these unaccompanied immigrant children to make sure the sponsors are not in the country illegally. Immigrant advocates fear that this enforcement tactic will make sponsoring families less willing to step forward, meaning the child could end up staying longer in shelters like this one.