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U.S. Officials Open Doors To Lackland Barracks Housing Immigrant Children

  On Thursday the military oversaw a media tour of the Air Force barracks at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, where 1,200 immigrant children who came to the U.S. without adults are being temporarily sheltered in San Antonio.

Situated in the midst of dozens of identical military barracks where young men and women go through Air Force basic training, one building is now filled with children.

It’s a three-story beige dorm building that would normally be drab in its decor, but now paper flower decals decorate windows, and papel picado -- brightly colored perforated paper -- hangs as curtains over the windows in the girls’ dorm room. 

"The problem is huge," said Chris Cabrera of the U.S. Border Patrol. At his office in McAllen, Texas, Cabrera said his officers are apprehending 500 to 700 kids every day; more on the weekends.

Within 72 hours, the children must be turned over to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for care, and that’s how many of these children have ended up at Lackland.

Media on the tour were not permitted to use tape recorders or to interact with the kids, but most of the children made eye contact and many smiled back. There were dozens of older boys, perhaps 14 to 18 years of age, in an outdoor classroom listening to a man speak to them in Spanish. An adjacent area provided sofas and chairs where other boys relaxed together in the shade.

Inside were intake rooms where children as young as 12 were interviewed. A weary-looking young boy leaned his head on the shoulder of an older boy. Air Force posters still hang on cafeteria walls, but the showers are now modified so each child has privacy. There’s a supply room filled with boxes of new clothing, and shelves of toys like Jenga and bubbles, Frisbees and balloons.

Medical personnel screen incoming children for scabies and lice. Children who crowded together on top of train cars or inside trucks on their journey to the U.S., now have space to relax and play games. Each child has a clean bed with a mattress -- not a cot-- and lockers for personal things.

A group of teenage girls studied English in a classroom that was oddly decorated both with the children’s drawings of home, such as their countries’ flags or musical instruments – alongside leftover Air Force posters showing aircraft or various phases of basic training.

Lackland has seen almost 2,000 kids come through since it opened the barracks to the children on May 18. Almost 1,000 have been processed out to vetted families or sponsors.

HHS predicts more than 60,000 kids will escape Central America to the U.S. this year. In a press conference by phone earlier this week, White House Director of Domestic Policy Cecelia Munoz said the administration has elevated the crisis to an urgent humanitarian situation and has ordered a multi-agency coordinated effort to address the problem.

"This is an increase of what we've seen in previous years. It also includes more girls, and more children under the age of 13 compared with previous years," Munoz said.

The White House said another group of about 500 children were being transferred to a Naval base in California.

In San Antonio, kids as young as 12 will continue to be processed through Lackland – and younger children through other nonprofit humanitarian organizations – while federal agencies work together to figure out some solution to the growing problem.

Eileen Pace is a veteran radio and print journalist with a long history of investigative and feature reporting in San Antonio and Houston, earning more than 50 awards for investigative reporting, documentaries, long-form series, features, sports stories, outstanding anchoring and best use of sound.