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One Answer To #WhereAreTheGirls Is A Migrant House In Lemon Grove

A house in Lemon Grove provides shelter to migrant girls, July 4, 2018.
Jean Guerrero
A house in Lemon Grove provides shelter to migrant girls, July 4, 2018.
One Answer To #WhereAreTheGirls Is A Migrant House In Lemon Grove
One Answer To #WhereAreTheGirls Is A Migrant House In Lemon Grove GUEST: Jean Guerrero, fronteras reporter, KPBS News

As you heard on PBS news a U.S. government attorney in San Diego says authorities will reunite roughly half the immigrant children under age 5 with their parents by the court deadline tomorrow. But the Trump administration says it is still not sure when the rest will be reunified. Also in San Diego courts today the beginning of a legal proceeding called Operation Streamline aimed at speeding up prosecutions of suspected illegal border crossers. And while all of this is going on one of the houses where migrant children are being detained has been identified in San Diego CASA lemon grove is housing at least six migrant girls. The whereabouts of girls detained by the government has been a puzzle. In recent weeks. Joining me is Kate PBS Fronteras reporter Jean Guerrero Jean welcome. Thank you great to be here. Why has the whereabouts of the girl detainees been something of a mystery so after the public outcry over the family separation. The government opened some of the facilities where it keeps children. I visited one of them Casa San Diego. But all of the facilities that they opened were facilities for boys. All of the photos that they released were photos of boys and so people started asking well where are the girls. And the Department of Homeland Security secretary Kirsten Nielsen was asked at a press conference where the girls and she said I don't know. So this created a hashtag on Twitter and everybody just started to try to figure out this mystery of where where are the girls that gave rise to conspiracy theories on social media about potential human trafficking. And just a lot of questions about the quality of the care that these girls are receiving and where they are and the government has just been secretive about these shelters in general for years. They said that they want to safeguard the privacy of the girls. They've repeatedly for the past couple of years turned away requests to visit these shelters. So what can you tell us about Casa lemon grove. What's it like. It's a house on a residential street in Lemon Grove a two story house. It's run by Sobeski nonprofit that operates 27 facilities in Arizona California and Texas. They run the converted Wal-Mart in Brownsville Texas that got a lot of attention after Sen. Jeff Merkley got turned away and that was actually what started this whole process of the government opening up the shelters. The interesting about this shelter it's just it's very different from some of the tent cities. You know the yes the freezers that they call them the freezer's where a lot of migrants are kept because it's just it's just this really nice houses on Zillow says it's worth almost 900 thousand dollars. It has a swing set and a basketball court and lounge furniture in the back. It's very different from what we've seen. One thing that I thought was interesting about the place is that you can see the backyard very clearly from the backyards of other neighbors and that just raised questions for me because the government has repeatedly said that they that they won't let journalists into these places because they want to safeguard the privacy of the girls. And yet many people in the neighborhood have have a very clear view of the girls doing exercises and playing games outside. So you were not allowed to go into Casselman grow. But can you tell us about how many how many migrant girls are there and what their ages are. Yes. So I wasn't allowed in. But I did see them come back from a field trip on the Fourth of July. I saw at least six girls so I didn't I don't think I saw them all because two white minivans dropped them off through the side door of the house and and parked in this T shape like this very practiced maneuver. I mean they could see me there outside and they wanted to block the girls from my view. And so I was unable to see them all. But there are at least six girls in this house and they range in age from about 7 to 14. And they were all wearing these these red t shirts. What do the neighbors say about the young people living in the house. So the neighbors I spoke to almost all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were concerned about getting in trouble with Southwest Key and with the government. But for the most part they said that the girls seem happy that one woman told me that she could hear them laughing all the time. They also said that it seems like they have a very structured existence there and that they're constantly being taken places and that it's sort of like a school. One neighbor that I just spoke to did say that in the mornings he can hear the girls crying sometimes. And I'm not sure what that's about. But he he just hypothesize that it was they just don't want to get up early. And a few of the neighbors said that they were kind of annoyed with all of the Border Patrol vehicles and other unmarked vehicles that visit the girls on a regular basis and just kind of fill up the street and block their driveways so people have put up these no parking and tollway zone signs to deal with that. You say it's not known if these girls are among those who have been separated from their parents. Can you tell us more about that. Right. So neither Southwest keen or the government wanted to comment on the facility or the girls inside. So I don't know anything about them besides what I was able to confirm from seeing them and from publicly available documents and my anonymous conversations. But that was key says that 10 percent of its of the children in its facilities have been separated from their parents generally speaking. So across all of their facilities and those have not been separated came to the border alone. So I mean all I know is that 10 percent of Southwest CU residents have been separated from their families. Apparently Kaso Lemon Grove has gotten some criticism from at least one senator. Why. That's right. So Iowa Senator Charles Grassley obtained some documents in 2014 indicating that Southwest Key was charged with proposing to charge the government a blended daily rate of three hundred and 329 dollars for the site at the time and he thought that this was too much money. He cited another house nearby called Guss Oklahoman which was the same price and has a petting zoo and multiple orchards and an aquaponics facility with more than a thousand fish there. He just he cited these examples of what he felt were extravagance. It's just you know overly extravagant and features of both Gus lemon grove and CASA Olga Hoen which I haven't been able to find but is also here in San Diego. Now Jane just to change the focus for a minute. The legal procedure known as Operation Streamline is supposed to debut for immigration prosecutions here in San Diego. What is Operation Streamline. The government is now prosecuting a hundred under zero tolerance. The government started prosecuting 100 percent of first time illegal entries which is a federal misdemeanor. And instead of instead of focusing on repeat offenders and serious smugglers. So this created a massive strain on the courts here in San Diego which werent used to dealing with so many so many immigrants in the court. And so this program is meant to expedite their processing from arrest to sentencing in group hearings and just things happening a lot faster. Opponents say that this is depriving immigrants of their due process rights. And its existed in in other border states since 2005 with groupings of as many as 100 people in a courtroom in shackles and it's unclear what it's going to look like here whether people how many people are going to be heard at one time and how long it's going to take but we do know it's going to significantly expedite the processing of these misdemeanors. I've been speaking with PBS Fronteras reporter Jean Guerrero. Jeanne thank you. Thank you.

As the U.S. government rushes to meet a court order to reunite migrant children with parents, a question that spread across social media with a viral hashtag — #WhereAreTheGirls? — has remained largely unanswered.

But one answer lies in a house in Lemon Grove. KPBS confirmed that the government keeps at least six migrant girls there, using public documents and anonymous tips from employees of the nonprofit.

Despite public outcry, the Department of Health and Human Services has declined to let media see any of the detention facilities for migrant girls, conducting tours of only the places where the boys are kept. Both the government and Southwest Key, the nonprofit that operates the facility, declined to comment on "Casa Lemon Grove."

The two-story beige house is a far cry from the cages and tent cities used to detain migrant children in Texas, or the cold rooms known as "hieleras," or freezers, that Customs and Border Protection uses to detain migrants in San Diego and elsewhere.

The house sits on a hill behind a large palm shrub on a quiet residential street. Casa Lemon Grove looks normal except for nine signs in the driveway with messages like “No Trespassing,” and “Warning: Security Cameras.”

A Zillow listing says the five-bedroom, three-bathroom property is worth close to $900,000. Documents obtained by Iowa Senator Charles Grassley from the Department of Health and Human Services in 2014 indicate that Southwest Key proposed to charge the government a “blended daily rate” of $329 for the site at the time.

A light brown nail polish lies outside a girls' migrant facility in Lemon Grove, July 4, 2018.
Jean Guerrero
A light brown nail polish lies outside a girls' migrant facility in Lemon Grove, July 4, 2018.

Grassley wrote a letter to the agency, saying it was “disturbing that HHS is funding such expensive facilities despite claiming to be unable to meet basic needs for (unaccompanied minor children).” He referenced another girls’ facility nearby, in El Cajon, with a “small petting farm with ducks, chickens, and miniature ponies” as well as an “Acuaponics (sic) system where we are cultivating over 1,000 Tilapia.”

Southwest Key, whose chief executive has come under fire for his $1.5-million annual compensation in 2016, declined to comment on either of its girls’ facilities in San Diego or to let KPBS inside, referring questions to the Department of Health and Human Services. The agency also declined to comment.

The lack of information regarding where the girls are being kept has led some prominent activists on social media to question the quality of care the girls are receiving, and has spawned conspiracy theories of human trafficking.

The government has said its secrecy about these facilities is about a need to “safeguard the privacy” of the children. But the girls’ backyard is clearly visible from the backyards of several neighbors. Both male and female residents reported seeing the girls exercising and stretching in their sprawling, three-level backyard, which contains a set of swings, a slide, a basketball court and lounge furniture.

Hollis Barber, an 82-year-old resident who lives a few houses away, said he doesn’t know much about the girls. He pointed at a white minivan in the driveway.

“They have like five or six of those vans and they take the girls somewhere, somewhere in the mornings,” he said. “And they come back in the evenings.”

KPBS saw the girls returning from an Independence Day field trip on Wednesday. They wore red shirts and appeared to range in age from about 7 to 14.

Barber placed a “Tow-Away” sign in front of his house, saying Border Patrol vehicles and other vans visiting the girls will sometimes fill up the street and block his driveway. Several other neighbors have “No Parking” signs on their driveways.

A neighbor's tow-away sign warns away Border Patrol vehicles, July 4, 2018.
Jean Guerrero
A neighbor's tow-away sign warns away Border Patrol vehicles, July 4, 2018.

A public outcry about family separations led the government to give controlled media tours of some of the facilities last month. KPBS visited a boys’ shelter in El Cajon called Casa San Diego operated by Southwest Key. Journalists were prohibited from taking photos, making audio or video recordings and speaking with the children. They were asked to hold their questions until the end of the tour.

About 10 percent of the boys at Casa San Diego had been separated from their parents.

It’s unclear how many of the girls at Casa Lemon Grove have been separated from their parents. Several of the neighbors spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they feared getting in trouble with Southwest Key or the government. One man said he hears the girls crying in the mornings. He said he assumed it’s because the girls want to stay asleep.

Most of the neighbors said the girls at Casa Lemon Grove seem well taken care of.

“They’re always laughing, there’s never a problem … it seems very nice. They seem happy,” said one woman.

If any of the girls at the facility have been separated from their parents, the government has until July 26 to reunite them with their parents — either released on parole or in family detention centers.

“We anticipate there will be large temporary detention facilities,” said Elizabeth Camarena, associate director of Casa Cornelia, a legal services provider for migrant girls and boys in San Diego County. “We are already strategizing to figure out how we might facilitate legal services in that type of environment.”

One Answer To #WhereAreTheGirls Is A Migrant House In Lemon Grove
Despite public pressure, the U.S. government has declined to let media see any of the detention facilities for migrant girls. But KPBS found a house in Lemon Grove where some girls are kept.