NOGALES, AZ (CBS5) -- The U.S. Border Patrol Wednesday morning allowed media to tour the transitional holding facility in Nogales, AZ, currently housing hundreds of undocumented immigrant juveniles.
They allowed one video camera operator and one still photographer inside the facility prior to all the other reporters to get footage and photos. The video and photos were then distributed to all media outlets.
CBS 5's Donna Rossi went on the tour, which lasted about an hour. All recording devices were prohibited, including cell phones. Rossi was instructed not to interact with the children or the Border Patrol agents. The questions of the Border Patrol were limited. What follows is Donna's firsthand account.
"Entering the facility, I was immediately reminded of walking into a huge box warehouse store, the kind where you buy things in bulk. The temperature inside was a pleasant relief from the near triple digit temperatures outside. The 120,000 sq. foot facility was cooled by evaporative coolers.
"Border Patrol agents walked us through the process the undocumented immigrant kids go through upon their arrival. First, they're processed through intake where all their personal information is logged. The agents obtain information on the kids such as their name, date of birth and country of origin. Any personal property they brought with them is bagged and tagged. They are given a receipt to retrieve it upon their departure. On the shelves holding personal property, I saw a lot of backpacks and satchels. One pile even included a large plastic jar of uncooked pinto beans.
"During the intake process, the kids are also given health screenings by the U.S. Public Health System. They are tested for TB and hepatitis and given inoculations. We were told that they are observed for 24 hours in case any of them have adverse reactions.
"The children arriving are also given a laundry bag to put their dirty clothes in. They are given showers and clean clothes. Earlier this month, President Obama declared the influx of these kids into the United States an 'urgent humanitarian situation.' That set the stage for federal agencies to coordinate and all out humanitarian effort and allowed FEMA to get involved.
"According the Border Patrol agent giving us the tour, FEMA responded quickly by delivering five massive semi trailers containing shower stalls. The five trailers have a total of 60 shower heads, each contained in its own stall with a curtain for privacy. The trailers are situated just outside the massive warehouse. Two bathroom trailers were also delivered as well as a huge trailer facility that houses dozens of washers and dryers where workers are doing the kids' laundry and providing clean clothes.
"The inside of the warehouse is divided into many work spaces and living spaces by tall chain linked fencing. The kids are assigned a living space based on age and gender. There are living spaces for females 12 and under, males 12 and under, females 12 to 15, females 16 to 17, males 13 to 15 and males 16 to 17. There are also separate areas where young mothers and their infants are separated from the general population. There's also a separate fenced are for sibling groups so regardless of their ages the siblings can be together to lessen the trauma of the situation.
"We were instructed not to interact with the kids. Yet I found myself wanting to at least say hello and let tell them that they were safe and would be OK. I did not but in making eye contact with the children, some of them smiled and nodded and I did the same in return, expressing in my eyes what I was unable to verbalize.
"One little girl, who was in a small fenced area with dozens of other kids who were waiting processing, caught my attention and tugged at my heart. The kids in this area were dirty and had not yet been processed in. She looked like she was around 8 years old. She was lying face down on a sleeping pad, clutching a stuffed toy for dear life and crying. She appeared scared and uncertain of what was going on. A little girl next to her wiped the hair from the crying little girl's face and put her arm on her back to comfort her.
"Art Del Cueto, the president of the Border Patrol Agent's Union, was with us on the tour. He estimated that there were just slightly more than 800 kids in the facility right now. He said because he's an agent he has had a chance to speak with many of the children. He said they tell him that they know they are only going to be at the facility a little while and then they will be reunited with their relatives in the states.
"He also said none of the kids he's talked with have any intention of going back to their home countries. That, despite the fact that when they are processed out of the facility and transported to their family in various parts of the United States, they are given papers from immigration ordering them to appear at immigration court to start the process of deportation or asylum. Del Cueto said none of the kids that he's talked with have any intention of doing that.
"The facility was fairly quiet given the number of kids inside. Many of the children were lying on their issued bed pads, covering themselves with shiny, aluminum looking Mylar blankets. There were a few teen boys in once fenced in living quarter tossing a Frisbee over the sea of boys lying on their pads. Still a few others were watching the newly installed high definition TV‘s mounted high on poles, aimed at giving the kids some entertainment.
"We were guided to two large fenced-in areas with long tables and benches lined up cafeteria style. Each area, we were told, could hold 200 kids. This is where the kids ate three meals a day. The FEMA effort also provided a full food service area to be set up. The agent in charge of our tour explained to us that breakfast usually consists of a breakfast burrito with the typical ingredients of egg, meat and cheese. But he also said they've had to adapt over the weeks.
"Some of the children, they noticed, were not eating their breakfast. They realized that the burritos were served with flour tortillas, as is done in the U.S. So they worked it out to have the burritos made with corn tortillas, as is done in Mexico and Central America. For lunch the kids are served a meal that could include, rice, beans, meat and fruit. That's also the types of things served at dinner. They also have sandwiches available. In between meals, the kids are offered snacks and juice. Water is also readily available.
"A phone bank area was set up with, according to Border Patrol, 40 working phones. It was explained to us that agents and Red Cross volunteers helped the kids reach their relatives in the states to let them know where they were and that they were OK.
"Union President Del Cueto told me that most of these kids come across the border with the phone numbers of their relatives in the states in their pocket. He also said that while many people are saying the reason for this influx of kids is for them to escape poverty and violence, most of the kids he talked with say they are coming here because their family is already here. And they were told by their family and religious groups that visited their country that if they go to America right now, this would be the time to get a free ticket to stay.
"The facility is crowded. The kids have their sleeping pads one right next to the other in their particular fenced-in areas. Some of those situated right along the fence clasped their hands through the links, shoulder high and peered out through the openings. It looked like they were caged, or imprisoned. It is a difficult image to erase.
"As we left the facility, several groups of girls were playing in the makeshift playground, which is really the blacktop parking area surrounding the Border Patrol building and warehouse. One group of girls was in a fenced in area shooting baskets. A Border Patrol agent was fielding the rebounds, tossing the ball back to the girls and sharing laughs. Another group of young girls were playing soccer. They were laughing and joking. For a moment I almost forgot where I was.
"Regardless of the politics involved in this illegal immigration crisis, I hope for that moment those young girls also forgot where they were."