A former oilfield worker camp off a dirt road in rural Texas has become the U.S. government's newest holding center for detaining migrant children after they leave Border Patrol stations, where complaints of overcrowding and filthy conditions have sparked a worldwide outcry.
Inside the wire fence that encircles the site are soccer fields, a giant air-conditioned tent that serves as a dining hall, and trailers set up for use as classrooms and as places where children can call their families.
The long trailers once used to house workers in two-bedroom suites have been converted into 12-person dorms, with two pairs of bunk beds in each bedroom and the living room.
The Department of Health and Human Services said about 225 children are being held at the site in Carrizo Springs, with plans to expand to as many as 1,300, making it one of the biggest camps in the U.S. government system.
The government said the holding center will give it much-needed capacity to take in more children from the Border Patrol and prevent their detention in stations like the one in Clint, Texas, where lawyers last month reported some 250 youngsters were being held in cells with inadequate food, water and sanitation. Of the children held at Carrizo Springs, 21 had previously been detained at Clint, HHS spokesman Mark Weber said.
HHS said the Carrizo Springs location is a comfortable environment for children while they wait to be placed with family members or sponsors in the U.S.
But immigrant advocates and others liken such places to child prison camps and worry that the isolated location 110 miles from San Antonio, the nearest major city, will make it more difficult to find lawyers to help the teenagers with their immigration cases.
Advocates have complained that HHS' largest holding centers — a facility in Homestead, Florida, a converted Walmart in Brownsville, Texas, and a now-closed tent camp at Tornillo, Texas — have traumatized children through overcrowding and inadequate staffing.
"All of this is part of a morally bankrupt system," said Rep. Joaquin Castro, a San Antonio Democrat.
There's also the huge cost: an average of $775 per day for each child. HHS plans to pay the nonprofit Baptist Child and Family Services up to $300 million through January to run the Carrizo Springs site.
The government allowed The Associated Press to visit on Tuesday and distribute photos and video, though the AP could not show children's faces because of privacy restrictions.
Boys and girls are kept in separate buildings and follow separate schedules. They have decorated their rooms with drawings of superheroes and the flags of their home countries, including Guatemala and El Salvador. Many children smiled and greeted visitors as they walked by. Several girls knitted yarn hats and armbands.
A series of tents serves as the infirmary, with nurses on hand treating a few children for lice and flu-like symptoms.
Breakfast is at 7 a.m., followed by soccer, then six hours of classes in reading, writing, social studies, science and math.