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At Border Patrol stations, many children, tight quarters

AP
A toddler plays on the floor among other detainees at a Customs and Border Protection processing facility on Wednesday, June 18, 2014, in Brownsville,Texas.

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'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

By The Associated Press
Wednesday, June 18, 2014, 7:42 p.m.
 

BROWNSVILLE, Texas — Children's faces pressed against glass. Hundreds of young boys and girls covered with aluminum foil-like blankets next to chain-link fences topped with barbed wire. The pungent odor that comes with keeping people in close quarters.

These were the sights on Wednesday from tours of crowded Border Patrol stations in South Texas and Arizona, where thousands of immigrants are being held before they are transferred to other shelters around the country.

It was the first time the media was given access to the facilities since President Obama called the more than 47,000 unaccompanied children who have entered the country illegally this budget year an “urgent humanitarian situation.”

The Border Patrol stations in Brownsville and Nogales were not meant for long-term custody. Immigrants are supposed to wait there until they are processed and taken to detention centers. But the surge in children arriving without their parents has overwhelmed the U.S. government.

The surge, which has been building for three years, comes amid a steep overall increase in immigrant arrests in southernmost Texas.

The children are mostly from Central America. They pose a particular challenge because the law requires Customs and Border Protection to transfer them to the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours. That agency's network of some 100 shelters around the country has been over capacity for months and is now caring for more than 7,600 children.

Children began backing up in already overcrowded Border Patrol stations. Eventually, the Border Patrol began flying them to Arizona, where it set up a massive processing center in the border city of Nogales, where reporters were also granted access on Wednesday. From there, the children are sent to private shelters or temporary housing at barracks on military bases in California, Texas and Oklahoma.

The children at Fort Brown remain in the custody of an agency ill-equipped to care for them.

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