Sights and smells from holding centers for immigrant children

Reporters had the opportunity to see first-hand the living conditions for immigrant children who recently came across the US-Mexico border.

By , Associated Press

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    Detainees sleep and watch television in a holding cell where hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children are being processed and held at the US Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center on Wednesday, June 18, 2014, in Nogales, Ariz.
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Children's faces pressed against glass. Hundreds of young boys and girls covered with aluminum-foil-like blankets next to chain link fences topped with barbed wire. The pungent odor that comes with keeping people in close quarters.

These were the scenes Wednesday from tours of crowded Border Patrol stations in South Texas and Arizona, where thousands of immigrants are being held before they are transferred to other shelters around the country.

It was the first time the media was given access to the facilities since President Obama called the more than 47,000 unaccompanied children who have entered the country illegally this budget year an "urgent humanitarian situation."

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The surge in minors, mostly from Central America, has overwhelmed the US government. It also prompted Texas officials Wednesday night to order a surge in state law enforcement resources to the border in an effort to help stop the influx. Details of that surge are still to come.

The children pose a particular challenge because the law requires that they be transferred from Border Patrol stations like the ones in Texas and Arizona to the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours.

From there, they are sent to shelters for several weeks as the government tries to reunite them with family in the US. The network of some 100 shelters around the country has been over capacity for months and is now caring for more than 7,600 children.

The tours were a shift from previous weeks when the government refused to provide basic details about the location of the facilities. But the tours also came with restrictions, such as no interaction with children and no on-the-record conversations with employees.

Inside the Fort Brown station in Brownsville, dozens of young boys were separated from dozens of young girls, with many lying under blankets on concrete floors. Mothers with children still younger were in another cell.

Happier faces could be found in a side yard outside, where young children colored pictures under a camouflage tent.

A group of about a dozen girls of perhaps 5 or 6 sat under another tent outside the shower trailer, dark hair wet and shiny. Women wearing blue gloves combed each girl's hair. Tables held stacks of clean bluejeans, T-shirts and toiletries.

Deeper into the yard, teen girls kicked a soccer ball and tossed a football with workers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In Nogales, Arizona, girls playing soccer with two male border agents shrieked when their ball crossed over the chain link fence and away from the small recreational area covered by a white tent. Others playing basketball cheered on their teammates.

Inside, the approximately 1,000 children in the clean, 120,000-square-foot warehouse were silent.

In a roomy area with teenage boys, a large, high-definition TV playing the World Cup went largely ignored. A small group of boys played soccer, but most lay on tiny mattresses and covered themselves with thin, heat-reflective blankets that looked like aluminum foil.

Chain link fences 15 feet tall and topped with barbed wire separated the children by age and gender.

Federal agents said they could not provide an estimate of the number of minors at the facility because the figure is fluid as children transition in and out.

Authorities at the Nogales station have struggled to adjust to their new role as temporary caretakers.

For example, it took a few days of children rejecting breakfast burritos before agents learned that Central Americans aren't accustomed to flour tortillas. FEMA renegotiated its contract with a food vendor to begin receiving corn tortillas instead.

The children are fed three times a day and take turns by group to use the 200-seat dining area.

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