PHOENIX - Arizona officials say the U.S. government has asked them to rush medical supplies to a makeshift holding centre housing hundreds of migrant children who were sent to the state after crossing into the U.S. from Mexico alone.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security started flying immigrants to Arizona from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas last month after the number of immigrants, including more than 48,000 children travelling on their own, overwhelmed the Border Patrol there.
The immigrant children were flown from Texas, released in Arizona and told to report to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement office near their destination within 15 days.
A Homeland Security Department official told The Associated Press that about 700 children were sleeping on plastic cots Friday at the warehouse in Nogales, but that the number of children there was expected to double to around 1,400. The warehouse has a capacity of about 1,500.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because there was no authorization to discuss the matter publicly, said the Nogales holding centre opened for children because the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had nowhere to turn.
"They became so overwhelmed and haven't kept up with planning," the official said.
At the holding centre, vendors are being contracted to provide nutritional meals, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, meanwhile, will provide counselling services and recreational activities.
ICE has said the immigrants were mostly families from Central America fleeing extreme poverty and violence.
The Homeland Security official said that about 2,000 mattresses have been ordered, and portable toilets and showers have been brought in.
The station began housing children flown from South Texas last Saturday. There are flights scheduled through mid-June.
Federal authorities plan to use the Nogales facility as a way station, where the children will be vaccinated and checked medically. They will then be sent to facilities being set up in Ventura, California, San Antonio, Texas, and Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
But the Homeland Security official said: "As quickly as we move them out, we get more. We believe this is just a start."
The children being held in Nogales are 17 or younger. The official estimated three of every four were at least 16.
Customs and Border Protection in Arizona "is prepared to and expects to continue processing unaccompanied children from South Texas," said Victor L. Brabble, a spokesman for the agency.
Gov. Jan Brewer in recent days sent an angry letter to President Barack Obama demanding that the federal program of dropping off of families at bus stations in Phoenix stop immediately, calling it dangerous and unconscionable.
The governor said she hadn't received a response to her letter by Friday from Federal Homeland Security Director Jeh Johnson.
"Meanwhile, I reiterate my call on President Obama to secure our southern border and terminate this operation immediately," Brewer said in a statement.
The Arizona Daily Star reported Saturday that Jimena Díaz, consul general of Guatemala in Phoenix, visited the centre Friday and said about 250 children are from Guatemala, with the rest coming from El Salvador and Honduras.
Diaz told the newspaper that the children are being kept in separate groups, divided by age and gender. Most are between 15 and 17, Diaz said, with a few much younger. Teenage mothers with their children are also being detained separately, he said.
Nogales Mayor Arturo Garino visited the facility Saturday, but he did not get inside the site where the children were being held. Garino said he did meet with Border Patrol officials. He was told some of the children are as young as 1 year old.
"I have all the faith in the world as mayor and as a citizen of Nogales that our Border Patrol is doing the best and the most kind and humane thing with the children," Garino said.
The town has begun collecting clothing donations for the kids, he said.
Immigration officials can immediately return Mexican immigrants to the border, but they are more challenged in dealing with Central American migrants who illegally cross into the U.S. In recent months, waves of migrants from nations south of Mexico have arrived in Texas.
The Homeland Security official said that legally, only their parents or guardians can take custody if the government makes the children eligible for release.
Officials in Central America and Mexico have noticed a recent increase in women and children crossing the border. Father Heyman Vazquez, the director of a migrant shelter in Huixtla in the southern Mexico state of Chiapas, said he and others advise children that it's too dangerous. Yet, Vazquez is seeing more and more youths heading north.
"I remember a little boy of 9 years old and I asked if he was going to go meet someone and he told me 'No, I'm just going hand myself over because I hear they help kids," Vazquez said.
Spagat reported from Tijuana, Mexico. Associated Press writer Alicia A. Caldwell in Washington and Maria Verza in Mexico City contributed to this report.
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