HARLINGEN — Shelters holding undocumented immigrant children are apparently swelling amid a spike in illegal border crossings.
Meanwhile, Florida-based Comprehensive Health Services, or CHS, is planning to open shelters to house undocumented immigrant children, Los Fresnos City Manager Mark Milum said yesterday.
In San Benito, Southwest Key Programs is apparently filling up its federally-funded shelters at the former Dolly Vinsant Memorial Hospital in San Benito and a former Walmart store on Padre Island Highway in Brownsville.
“The shelters are fully packed with children,” Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, said Friday.
Pimentel said 1,500 children are being held at the old Walmart building.
“They are at capacity,” she said.
By late May, federally-funded shelters were at 95-percent of capacity across the country.
Meanwhile, Southwest Key is trying to fill jobs at its sites in San Benito, Combes and Brownsville.
The Austin-based organization is holding a job fair today and Friday at the Amigoland Convention Center in Brownsville.
Last year, Southwest Key laid off nearly 1,000 employees across Cameron County amid plunging numbers of illegal crossings along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Now, border crossings are up to their highest level since President Donald Trump took office in January 2015.
In May, the U.S. Border Patrol arrested 51,912 migrants, nearly three times the number detained during the same period last year.
Statistics show the number of families detained increased by 435 percent last month compared with those arrested in May 2017.
Meanwhile, agents detained 6,405 children last month.
The influx is largely driven by families and teenagers from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, many of whom claim to be fleeing gang violence.
The Rio Grande Valley recorded far more arrests than other parts of the country.
On May 7, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered the prosecution of all persons illegally crossing the border, leading children to be separated from their parents.
“They are removing all children from their parents and sending them to different (shelters) until they deport them,” Pimentel said.
By late May, federally-funded shelters across the country held nearly 11,000 undocumented immigrant children, an increase of more than 20 percent over the previous month.
In Los Fresnos, CHS will replace International Educational Services, of IES, which was the city’s second-largest employer until it closed in March, shutting down its area shelters and laying off about 650 employees.
Milum said the company plans to hire about 850 employees.
“It will bring us back to what we lost,” Milum said.
The reason behind the closure of IES, whose federal grant was not renewed, remains unclear.
IES, with facilities across Cameron County, including Harlingen, Los Fresnos and Brownsville, had operated since 1988.
Secrecy shrouds the sheltering of undocumented children.
Early this month, Southwest Key’s Walmart shelter denied entry to U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, before it called the police.
Later, the organization responded to the Brownsville shelter’s decision to deny Merkley entry.
“At Southwest Key Programs, we share Senator Merkley’s concern for children and we appreciate that he took time to travel to the border,” the organization wrote in a statement.
“For more than 20 years, Southwest Key has acted as a humanitarian first-responder, caring for immigrant children arriving in this country without a parent or guardian. We provide round-the-clock services including food, shelter, medical and mental health care, clothing, educational support, supervision and reunification support.”
In 2000, arrests along the U.S.-Mexico border reached a record high of 1.6 million before the federal government took new enforcement steps, including doubling the number of Border Patrol agents.
51,912 – arrests
11,000 – children held in shelters
435 – percent more families detained compared with May 2017
6,405 – children detained