PORT HUENEME, Calif. - Officials expect a temporary shelter on a California military base could fill up next week as Central American children who entered the country illegally are sent there amid a surge in border crossings.
During a tightly controlled tour of the facility Thursday at Naval Base Ventura County, a government official said the number of teens housed at the 42,000-square foot (3,900-sq. meter) converted warehouse could more than triple to 575 by early next week.
Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families, said he could not confirm the estimate as "the numbers change by the hour."
The shelter is one of three planned for military bases in California, Oklahoma and Texas following a spike in the number of children caught crossing the border, mostly from Central America. More than 47,000 children have been apprehended at the Mexican border since the start of the budget year in October.
At the California shelter, neatly made bunk beds and extra dining tables have been set up for the children. Dirt soccer fields were created for outdoor play, and many are excited to watch World Cup matches on television, a shelter supervisor said.
Reporters were not allowed to speak with the children, who range in age from 13 to 17.
During their stay, the teens were learning long division in math class and drawing in art. Lunch was pizza bread, Caesar salad and applesauce served on brown disposable plates and eaten under white tents outdoors.
Each child is assigned a bunk bed and locker. Girls and boys are housed separately in sparsely decorated quarters hung with pictures made by the children or featuring characters such as X-Men and Green Lantern. In the classroom areas, posters feature the president and American icons such as Rosa Parks.
The facility has air conditioning but officials haven't needed to use it yet, and children bathe in individual showers.
After their arrest on the border, the children are transferred to HHS' custody and placed at a shelter until case workers find a relative or sponsor to care for them and ensure they attend immigration court hearings on government efforts to deport them.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Thursday there is no free pass for children or anyone else caught trying to cross the border illegally.
"I am not encouraging in any way, shape or form illegal immigration," Johnson said.
Associated Press Writer Alicia A. Caldwell contributed to this report from Washington.
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