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There are reports of a roundup that might be coming. Immigration agents could, as soon as next month, be rounding up mothers and children who have evaded deportation orders. And they could begin sending them back to Central America. Immigrant advocates argue these families are fleeing gang violence at home. They say many never had access to lawyers to help them win asylum. Now the situation is starkly different for unaccompanied children who illegally cross the southern border. As NPR’s John Burnett reports, the federal government is opening emergency shelters to accommodate these young travelers.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: U.S. Health and Human Services, or HHS, is hosting about 7,000 kids from Central America for Christmas this year, so many that two rural church camps in Texas have been tapped to handle the overflow. One of them is Lakeview Christian Camp in Ellis County, south of Dallas. About 650 kids from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, mostly boys, are enjoying a tamale dinner, a visit from Santa Claus, soccer games and presents donated by churches.
RICK DUBOSE: I know the Statue of Liberty does not sit outside the Texas border. But there’s still the principal of who we are as a nation.
BURNETT: Rick DuBose is superintendent of the North Texas District of the Assemblies of God. His denomination runs the Christian camp situated on rolling farmland with it lake, dormitories, sports fields and big mess hall. The federal government will pay up to $6 million to care for these youngsters, ages 12 to 17, for three weeks. That’s the maximum time Texas allows for an unlicensed facility. DuBose is a self-described political and biblical conservative. He says meeting the kids has humanized the immigration debate for him.
DUBOSE: What I don’t want is for these kids to become the scapegoat of some political agenda. So right now I appreciate the fact that when kids unaccompanied by adults come to our border, we’re showing compassion.
BURNETT: Not everyone, of course, feels this way. Paul Perry is a Republican commissioner in Ellis County and represents the area where the young immigrants are housed.
PAUL PERRY: This is still our tax dollars being spent. And it’s an indication of a failed border security and an immigration policy when we have 700 children that are landed on our doorstep and they are not dealt with at the border.
BURNETT: Under federal policy, these temporary shelters must have round-the-clock emergency medical care and security and a 1 to 8 ratio of counselors to kids. Andrea Helling is a spokesperson for Health and Human Services.
ANDREA HELLING: But the reality is these are expensive operations to run. They’re almost doubled what we pay for our permanent facilities. And so this is a temporary solution. This is not something we want to do long-term.
BURNETT: But in the near term, more shelters will be necessary. The numbers of women and children from Central America illegally crossing the southern border has been growing all year. The border patrol picked up more than 10,000 unaccompanied minors in October and November alone. That’s more than double the totals for the same period last year. If it feels like deja vu, you’re right. Last year, HHS took in 57,000 immigrant kids. They were packed like sardines in border patrol holding cells. In response, HHS vowed to be better prepared the next time around. And the Mexican government, under prodding from U.S., sent hundreds of immigration agents and police to pull Central American families off of northbound trains and buses. That was in the second half of 2014. And it worked for a while, says Andrew Selee, a Latin American specialist at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.
ANDREW SELEE: And a lot of the smugglers have now found their way around these blockades. They now know new routes to get to the United States.
BURNETT: U.S. border agents have also noticed a change in smuggling routes. With a law enforcement buildup in South Texas, now more immigrants are crossing in West Texas and Arizona. While federal authorities scramble to create safe welcoming shelters for the young asylum-seekers, immigration critics are concerned that the nation’s welcome mat may be too generous. After these kids spend a few weeks in the considerate care of HHS, they’re allowed to go live with a relative, who may also be in the country illegally, to await their day in immigration court. Again, Ellis County Commissioner Paul Perry.
PERRY: We’re setting a standard where rule of law doesn’t matter – a lot of incentive to break the law.
BURNETT: Meanwhile, 600 additional beds are being prepared for more young immigrants at a third church camp west of Fort Worth and inside Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.