LAWTON — Nearly 600 young people who crossed the southern U.S. border illegally are in good condition in temporary housing at Fort Sill, where they are being treated well while efforts are made to find their parents, Gov. Mary Fallin said Friday after taking a tour of the converted military barracks.
The children, ages 12 to 17, are part of an influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America. They began arriving at the Army post late last week after being picked up by Border Patrol agents. Another 135 were to arrive at the facility shortly. Up to 1,400 young people are expected to be housed there eventually, said U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, who also was on the tour, along with Terry Cline, Fallin’s health and human services secretary.
Fallin said that while many of the young people likely had a harrowing trip getting to the United States, they appear well now. They’ve received medical screenings, their clothes are clean, they are well fed and are given activities and games to play. Some of the young people were outside playing soccer, while some of the girls were inside playing the game “Twister.” Some were doing arts and crafts.
There is one adult for every 12 young people. They are separated into male and female sections.
The governor said she fears that as more and more children come in, the potential for problems increase. She said a better job needs to be done of securing the nation’s border and placed the problem squarely on the shoulders of President Barack Obama.
“President Obama’s lax policy on securing our borders has caused an illegal immigration crisis in our nation,” she said. “We have sent a signal that if you want to come to the United States as an unaccompanied child or teenager you can come without any repercussion. This is a major catastrophe for our nation.”
No reporters were allowed in the facility.
Military installations in San Antonio and Ventura County, Calif., also are assisting in providing temporary housing for the young people.
White House officials have called the flood of young illegal immigrants “an urgent humanitarian crisis” driven by the violence they face in their home countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala along with misinformation and exploitation from smugglers looking to profit from taking them north.
Also, word has spread that children and families who have illegally immigrated to the U.S. have been released in recent years, with notices to appear in immigration court.
The children are first encountered by U.S. Border Patrol agents and are then turned over to the Health and Human Services Department while their parents or a sponsor is sought. While they are being cared for, they are in removal proceedings.
Inhofe said the tour left him concerned.
“My greatest concern with today’s visit is that the administration still could not provide us answers to basic questions as to where the resources are going to come from to care for these children or the assurance that housing them on a military installation will not become a permanent program,” he said.
“As I’ve said before, the president needs to send a strong message to the world that our immigration laws will be enforced.
The number of unaccompanied children detained at the border averaged about 6,600 from 2004 through 2011. It increased to 13,000 in 2012 and to more than 24,000 in 2013. This year, it is expected to reach more than 60,000.
Most of the children are older than 14 and three-quarters of them are boys.
Meantime, Obama dispatched Vice President Joe Biden to Central America on Friday to put out the word that people should not try to come to the U.S. illegally.
The White House also announced that financial assistance was being given to bolster efforts in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to stem the tide of young illegal immigrants.