Angry about the federal government sending from Texas to Arizona immigrants who are in the country illegally, Arizona officials say they are rushing federal supplies to a makeshift holding center in the southern part of the state that’s housing hundreds of migrant children and is running low on the basics.
Gov. Jan Brewer’s spokesman, Andrew Wilder, said Friday that conditions at the holding center are so dire that federal officials have asked the state to immediately ship the medical supplies to the center in Nogales.
A Homeland Security Department official told The Associated Press that children are sleeping on plastic cots but about 2,000 mattresses have been ordered, and portable toilets and showers have been brought to the holding center – a warehouse that has not been used for detention in years.
The official, who who spoke on condition of anonymity because there was no authorization to discuss the matter publicly, said the Nogales holding center opened for children because the Department of Health and Human Services had nowhere to turn.
“They became so overwhelmed and haven’t kept up with planning,” the official said.
U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement has said the immigrants were mostly families from Central America fleeing extreme poverty and violence.
Wilder said a total of 432 unaccompanied minors detained in Texas arrived in Nogales on Friday, with 367 more expected both Saturday and Sunday.
The Homeland Security official said as many as 1,400 children are expected to be eventually brought to the warehouse, which has a capacity of about 1,500.
Federal authorities plan to use the Nogales facility as a way station, where the children will be vaccinated and checked medically. They will then be sent to facilities being set up in Ventura, California, San Antonio, Texas, and Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
The Homeland Security official said that the children are being moved out of the Nogales site as soon as Health and Human Services finds places for them. But the official said: “As quickly as we move them out, we get more. We believe this is just a start.”
The children being held in Nogales are 17 or younger. The official estimated three of every four were at least 16.
Wilder said reports from consulates that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was stopping the program to fly migrant families to Arizona and then bus them to Phoenix were incorrect. Instead, the program that has shipped unknown thousands of adult migrants and their children to Arizona since last month shows no sign of stopping, he said.
“The adults, the adults with children, families – that continues unfettered and we have no idea where they are going,” Wilder said.
In a statement Friday, Homeland Security officials said “appropriate custody determinations will be made on a case by case basis” for migrants apprehended in South Texas. The department declined to comment on the reports that the program of flying migrant families to Arizona was being halted.
Homeland Security started flying immigrants to Arizona from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas last month after the number of immigrants, including more than 48,000 children traveling on their own, overwhelmed the Border Patrol there.
The immigrant children were flown from Texas, released in Arizona, and told to report to an ICE office near where they were traveling within 15 days.
Brewer sent an angry letter to President Barack Obama on Monday demanding that the program of dropping off families at bus stations in Phoenix stop immediately. She called the program dangerous and unconscionable, asked for details and demanded to know why state authorities weren’t consulted or even informed.
The governor said she hadn’t received a response to her letter by Friday.
“I have reached out to Federal Homeland Security Director Jeh Johnson for answers. Meanwhile, I reiterate my call on President Obama to secure our southern border and terminate this operation immediately,” Brewer said in a statement.
Brewer’s staff spent Friday in a series of calls with officials from FEMA, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Homeland Security.
Wilder said FEMA’s Region 9 administrator was being sent to the holding center in Nogales on Saturday to oversee efforts to deal with the hundreds of arriving children.
The federal emergency supplies are held in Arizona warehouses, and Wilder said the state is working to send them to the holding center.
On Friday night, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that young lawyers and paralegals are being sought for the community service program AmeriCorps to provide legal assistance in immigration proceedings to children who come to the U.S. illegally. Officials say about 100 lawyers and paralegals will be enrolled as members of AmeriCorps in a new division called “justice AmeriCorps.”
Immigration officials can immediately return Mexican immigrants to the border, but they are much more hard-pressed to deal with Central American migrants who illegally cross into the U.S. In recent months, waves of migrants from nations south of Mexico have arrived in Texas.
The Homeland Security official said that legally, only their parents or guardians can take custody if the government makes the children eligible for release.
Spagat reported from Tijuana, Mexico. Associated Press writer Alicia A. Caldwell contributed to this report.