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Border & Immigration

Rare Look Inside A Child Migrant Shelter In El Cajon Amid Family Separation Outcry

Children wait for sponsors at a Southwest Key youth migrant shelter in El Cajon, June 15, 2018
Courtesy of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Children wait for sponsors at a Southwest Key youth migrant shelter in El Cajon, June 15, 2018

A youth migrant shelter in El Cajon opened its doors to journalists on Friday amid a public outcry about the Trump administration's practice of separating families at the border.

Casa San Diego houses 65 boys between the ages of 6 and 17. About 10 percent of the boys were separated from their parents by the U.S. government, according to Gerardo Rivera, associate vice president of immigrant children's services for Southwest Key Programs, the nonprofit that runs the shelter.

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Rivera downplayed the difficulties that family separation has brought to the shelter, saying that Southwest Key — which operates 27 shelters in California, Arizona and Texas — is used to dealing with kids who are upset or traumatized for a number of reasons, including gang violence in their home countries.

"This is not a new thing for us in the shelters," he said. "These kids come in and they're traumatized from a long time ago."

Rivera said even the boys at the shelter who crossed the border alone are dealing with family separation anxieties because some of them lost parents to crime in Central America or had to say goodbye to loved ones at home.

The Department of Homeland Security transfers children to the Department of Health and Human Service's Office of Refugee Resettlement, which places them in shelters like Casa San Diego. Shelters proliferated after 1997, when the Supreme Court ruled that immigrant minors could not be held in detention like adults. Case managers at the shelters try to find sponsors or foster care for the children, with an 1:8 ratio of case managers to children.

Rare Look Inside Child Migrant Shelter in El Cajon Amid Family Separation

On Friday, a group of boys played soccer on a small blacktop area sandwiched by two beige one-story buildings of the shelter. Another group read picture books and novels in a classroom. When journalists entered the room, the teacher had the boys recite "good morning" in Spanish, Portuguese and other languages.


The boys stay three or four to a room on twin-sized beds with one bathroom per room, with lights out at 9 p.m. Their walls are decorated with sketches and printouts, including images of Jesus Christ's crucifixion and typed quotes such as "When you are sad, just think that for God you are special."

Rivera showed us the intake room where the children are processed by a computer, a desk and a closet full of deodorant and clothing.

"This is where we calm them down," he said. "Some kids come in with thorns (in their bodies) ... once you eat you feel much better."

The average stay at the facility is just over 50 days, but one child recently stayed for about 260 days, according to shelter staff. The shelter has had runaways in the past. When asked about the difficulties of getting the children in touch with mothers and fathers in detention or criminal proceedings, the Southwest Key staff said only that "the main issue" is locating them.

Reporters were not allowed to interview any of the children, nor to bring any recording device of any kind into the shelter. The government provided still photographs and some video of the shelter's interior.

On Thursday, a much larger shelter in Brownsville held a similar tour for journalists.

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Casa San Diego is one of three youth migrant shelters in San Diego County, including one in Lemon Grove and another in El Cajon. The main hallway features a prominent mural of Superman. Another hallway features instructions on how to shave, warning the boys not to shave their eyebrows or any part of their body besides their jaws, and to return the razors after they are done.

The children are allowed two 10-minute phone calls a week, supervised by staff. When asked why they aren't allowed to make more or longer phone calls, Rivera said it was the policy of Office of Refugee Resettlement but added that if a family member is sick or if it's a holiday, children get to make additional phone calls.

The children also see mental health professionals twice a week, once on an individual basis and once in a group setting.

The clinician, Micah Caldwell, said he is on call if any of the children become inconsolable and need to be comforted at night.

Staff members said the children are sometimes taken on field trips to the San Diego Zoo and Balboa Park. They get two hours of recreation a day and six hours of educational programming. On Fridays and Saturdays, they get to watch movies and eat popcorn.

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The children also get to elect a student council -- a vice president and president -- to bring concerns to the program director once a week. Rivera said they mostly ask for better food and movies.

According to Brian Marriot, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, the Office of Refugee Resettlement currently has 11,351 children in custody nationwide, with 605 open beds and more coming. He said that he was "hinting" at coming announcements with this comment, suggesting that the Trump administration plans to designate more areas for immigrant children in addition to a tent city in Tornillo, Texas.