Former Walmart now housing boys seeking U.S. entry is crowded and prison-like, reporter says

The U.S. government has said that immigrant children being separated from their parents are being treated humanely, but one of the first journalists to be allowed entry to a facility in southern Texas has concerns.

Brownsville, Texas, facility one of several make-do shelters as U.S. detains increasing numbers

Reporter talks with CBC's Natasha Fatah about situation of children living separated from their families 5:20

The U.S. government has said that immigrant children being separated from their parents are being treated humanely, but one of the first journalists to be allowed entry to a facility in southern Texas told CBC News on Thursday there's no escaping what the centre feels like.

"These kids are not in a shelter as they call it, they are incarcerated," said Jacob Soboroff. "They're locked inside 22 hours a day. There are only more of them that are coming here, leading to an overcrowding crisis."

Soboroff, an NBC News reporter, was one of a limited number of journalists allowed on Wednesday to tour the so-called Casa Padre facility in Brownsville near the border with Mexico. The building, formerly a Walmart, houses nearly 1,500 currently.

The converted big box store, which has been sheltering people for over a year, came under greater scrutiny earlier this month when Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon showed up to be given a tour but was turned away.

Merkley's interest in seeing the site came in the wake of Attorney General Jeff Sessions announcing a zero tolerance policy for illegal entry into the U.S., with all cases being referred for criminal prosecution and children separated from parents.

"If you don't like that, then don't smuggle children over our border," Sessions said at the time.

Children are being separated from their parents and treated as if they were unaccompanied minors, a different refugee category that has seen an uptick in numbers in the past decade due in large part to soaring homicide rates and gang violence in Mexico and Central America.

Previously, administrations had followed a catch-and-release policy ahead of asylum hearings for those claiming refugee status at a port of entry. Many were skipping their hearings altogether or defying deportation orders, staying on in the U.S. illegally.

Immigration authorities, per a 1997 understanding following a legal challenge, were obligated to not unduly delay placing undocumented children with relatives or sponsors. That timeline has been greatly compromised by the new approach favouring of widespread detentions.

The former Walmart in Brownsville now contains only boys, from ages 10 to 17.

Merkley was criticized by some Republicans for knowingly going to the centre without following the proper procedures to seek access ahead of time. But he told CBC's As It Happens the unannounced visit was necessary because the Office of Refugee Resettlement, under the Department of Health and Human Services, has been "stonewalling" politicians and the media.

Specifically, the Democrat said, it's unclear whether the children have access to proper medical, psychological and social work services available to them after the trauma of both the journey to the U.S. and the separation from parents.

"It's appropriate for members of Congress to go and ask these questions," said Merkley.

Sessions has support on the separation issue from President Donald Trump and current chief of staff John Kelly, who previously served as Homeland Security chief. The administration has argued the new thrust is necessary for deterrence, although overall numbers crossing illegally into the U.S. are far short of those from the late 1980s until early this century.

'It's really an amazing thing'

Referring to the separated children, Sessions told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt in a June 5 interview that he believed "for the most part they're well taken care of."

"Sometimes, we take them to places from the border to Denver, to Chicago, to Islip, N.Y.," the attorney general said. "We transport them to the place they want to go. Many of the children are taken in that fashion. It's really an amazing thing."

Merkley would likely disagree with the characterization, having described to media outlets "cages that looked a lot like dog kennels" after he visited a McAllen, Texas, processing centre run by the government.

Sessions admitted to Hewitt that he hadn't visited any of the facilities where the children were being held.

Soboroff said many questions still remain, including a full accounting from the government of where small children and girls are being held.

Soboroff said it's puzzling the government didn't foresee the consequences of the separation policy. There's nothing new to sheltering either unaccompanied minors or families waiting for hearings, he said, but "never before have shelters been overcrowded because of an actual policy."

Southwest Key Programs, the outside agency which operates the Brownsville building, administers over two dozen such locations across the U.S. The organization's founder told the Washington Post this week the organization's resources are being stretched to the limit.

The overcrowding is such that McClatchy news agency reported on Wednesday that the government is considering erecting so-called tent cities at military bases in the U.S., beginning with Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas.

The United Nations has decried the Trump administration approach, calling the separation of families "arbitrary and unlawful" and a "serious violation" of the rights of children.

Policy experts have said the practice is heavy handed given that most first-time violations for illegal entry lead to deportation anyways, with the maximum penalty six months in prison.

Soboroff said the facility in Brownsville was clean and maintained under the circumstances, but contained a "slightly strange" mural with a Trump tweet: "Sometimes by losing a battle you find a new way to win the war."

The tour did not allow an opportunity to have in-depth conversations with the boys, he said, but that the ones who did speak were eager for the day a family member of sponsor can take them out of the facility and to a proper home.

With files from Reuters