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Latino Lawmakers Report Ventura Shelter For Migrants Adequate, Kids Healthy

Aired 7/9/14 on KPBS News.

Members of the state Latino Legislative Caucus on Tuesday toured an emergency shelter for Central American children in Ventura. The legislators said they were satisfied with the shelter’s conditions and the children’s health.

Members of the California Latino Legislative Caucus said they watched children play soccer and learn English on their tour of the shelter at the Ventura County Naval Base.

They weren’t allowed to talk to the kids, but they said the children seemed to be in good spirits, and the legislators said the sleeping areas and makeshift classrooms were satisfactory.

"I was pleased to see clean, adequate dorms and even happier to see content, well-behaved children," California State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) said in a statement.

State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, the Democrat who represents Ventura, said church leaders and volunteers in her district had stepped up to help the children.

“This is America at its best,” she said, “and I’m very proud that they’re in my district.”

More than 52,000 immigrant children travelling alone have been caught by Border Patrol agents along the southwest border since October of last year. Most of them are from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Once taken into custody, children under 18 must be turned over to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours. HHS is charged with housing the children until they can be reunited with a family member, generally within a few weeks.

California Latino lawmakers said 700 children at the Ventura shelter had already been reunited with family in the U.S. They are generally allowed to stay in the country while they await the outcome of their immigration case.

Last month, federal authorities began transferring Central American children aged 13 to 18 to the Ventura shelter to ease crowding in South Texas, where most of them have been caught trying to enter the U.S. illegally.

The shelter has 575 beds and previously housed service members for short stints before and after deployment. The Department of Defense has initially agreed to keep the shelter open for four months.

The federal government contracted the non-profit organization Southwest Key to run the Ventura shelter. The organization runs 22 shelters for unaccompanied immigrant minors in Texas, Arizona and California, including two in San Diego County.

But it faced strong opposition when it tried to open a shelter for migrant children in Escondido in June. After hundreds of residents showed up at a planning commission meeting to speak out against the shelter, the commission voted unanimously to deny a permit.

Opponents expressed fear that the shelter would bring crime and disease, as well as traffic and parking problems for the surrounding neighborhood.

A week later, protestors blocked three busloads of immigrant families en route to a Border Patrol station in Murrieta, in southern Riverside County, where federal immigration authorities had sought to transfer them for immigration processing. They were taken instead to a Border Patrol station in San Diego County near the U.S.-Mexico border.

Democratic State Senator Norma Torres — who toured the Ventura shelter this week, and was born in Guatemala — says the kids are likely not thinking about the long-term consequences of their journey to the U.S.

“They are very much kids,” she said. “ They’re not thinking about anything other than trying to live another day, and trying to survive and trying to find a relative here in the U.S.”

President Barack Obama has asked Congress for $3.7 billion to help deal with what he’s calling a humanitarian crisis. Obama has also indicated that most of the Central American children trying to cross the border illegally will ultimately be deported.

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