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Conditions slowly improve in Nogales for migrant children at border

The conditions for the nearly 1,000 unaccompanied migrant children sheltered at an impromptu holding center here in Nogales are slowly starting to improve.
Young undocumented immigrants leave a Border Patrol facility. The U.S. Border Patrol holds hundreds of undocumented unaccompanied minors and women in a detention facility in Nogales, Ariz., June 7, 2014.
Young undocumented immigrants leave a Border Patrol facility. The U.S. Border Patrol holds hundreds of undocumented unaccompanied minors and women in a detention facility in Nogales, Ariz., June 7, 2014.

NOGALES, Arizona -- The conditions are slowly starting to improve for nearly one thousand unaccompanied migrant children sheltered at an impromptu holding center here, officials said Tuesday.

The children now have access to catered food, onsite showers, medical facilities for vaccinations and a makeshift laundromat after being shipped from overflowing detention facilities in Texas over the weekend, Nogales Mayor Arturo Garino told msnbc.

“The conditions are fair,” Garino said in an interview. “I felt comfortable, I felt really comfortable.”

NBC News has reported that hundreds of youths were unable to bathe for as many as nine days and often slept under foil blankets on plastic cots instead of proper beds.

The Obama administration, which called the situation a "humanitarian crisis," has been scrambling to assemble a triage operation to deal with the heavy influx of unaccompanied minors who have streamed through the southwestern border. Customs officials estimate they have swept up more than 47,000 children since October, up 92% from the year before. Those figures, released last week, may already be outdated, and the number of children picked up is expected to swell to more than 60,000.

Garino said he saw young children playing in the facility, sectioned out by gender and age groups. But what caught his eye were two little girls, who looked no older than 10 or 11, who said they were upset. They missed their parents.

“The sad part about it is to know that little girls that age could have traveled all the way from Central America to the border of Texas,” Garino told msnbc. “It’s unbelievable.”

After touring the facility, Juanita Molina, executive director at the Border Action Network, raised concerns whether the government was equipped to cope with the children's emotional and psychological needs.

“The children are tired, depressed, and having difficulty with the current situation,” Molina told msnbc Tuesday. “It’s a confusing environment for them.”

For those children who made it to the border, mostly boys and many as young as a few months old, their journey is far from over. Buses have streamed in and out of the converted warehouse here in Nogales, located just a stone’s throw away from the U.S.-Mexico border, being used as a holding facility. After receiving initial screening and vaccinations, the kids are piled back into buses to San Antonio, Texas; Fort Sill, Okla.; and Ventura, Calif.

Garino said he expects the cycle to go on throughout summer, even into September. “We’re going to be busy for awhile,” he said.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials insist the Nogales center is well-equipped to handle the nearly 1,000 children coming through its gates.

"The Tucson Sector has secured additional services such as a Health and Human Services medical screening area, additional bedding, shower areas and laundry facilities. Vendors have been contracted to provide nutritional meals, FEMA will be providing counseling services and recreational activities," it said in a statement.

The surge of unaccompanied minors crossing into the U.S. does not come as much of a surprise. Over the past three years, the stream of children seeking refuge from violence, gangs and poverty in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador has steadily climbed at eye-popping rates. Even still, federal officials have been ill-prepared to cope with the thousands of children who are entering the country on their own.

Garino, who has lived in Nogales all his life, said few of those untended children risk the treacherous journey through the desert in Arizona. For him, tighter security along the border regions is not the answer to stem the flow.

“I just hope our Congress and our government get off that high horse and start seriously talking about immigration reform,” Garino said. “You can have soldiers, you can have military, you can have everything,”

“That 20-foot wall that’s there,” he added, “it’s not going to stop anybody.”

President Obama tasked the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with coordinating a federal response, and asked for an addition $160 million to alleviate the bottleneck of children in need of shelter.

Arizona Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake issued a statement Tuesday condemning the Obama administration, saying they believed the influx of migrants shows the border is not sufficiently secure.

“After years of struggling to secure the Arizona border with Mexico, it is unfathomable that this administration would transfer and then purposely release illegal migrants from Texas into Arizona,” the Republican senators said in a statement.

Some advocates argue that the heightened border security has had the opposite effect, with a focus on enforcement rather than stemming the problem at the source in the countries the children are escaping.

“It’s really trapping kids in a burning house,” Jennifer Podkul, senior program officer at the Women’s Refugee Commission, told msnbc. “If they do have legitimate concerns, they should have access to a place that’s safe.”

But for immigration and refugee advocate groups that assist in finding shelter for unaccompanied minors, there are still a number of concerns being raised over how the government will maintain support down the road.

“I think they’re overwhelmed,” Kevin Appleby, director of the office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said of the administration's response. 

Refugee advocates estimate the vast majority of the unaccompanied minors who cross the border have parents, relatives or other adults in the U.S. who are able to take them in. But the level of post-release services available for the children, including access to legal aid, therapy and integration into communities, remains unclear.

“I don’t think we’ll be able to give the range of services that we do under normal circumstances,” Appleby said, adding that USCCB could increase aid from several hundred children to several thousand, but their efforts would still not meet the needs of the streams of children being processed through the shelters.

Advocates say it's now is the time, more than ever, to come to a legislative solution.

“The conversation should have to be about the kids,” said Julie Rosicky, executive director of International Social Service. “It really needs to be about the health, safety and well-being of these children.”