In U.S. custody, migrant kids are flown thousands of miles at taxpayer expense

Before they sloshed and skidded across the Rio Grande, Greysi and Claudia Paula had never been on a plane.

Now the teenage Honduran sisters are frequent fliers, crisscrossing America on government chartered jets and settling into commercial airliner seats at taxpayer expense. In the harried and jumbled scramble to house a wave of unaccompanied minors illegally entering the United States, U.S. officials have ordered the girls flown from Texas to Arizona, from Arizona to Oklahoma and from Oklahoma back to Arizona — all in a matter of weeks.

Their jagged 3,000-plus mile trek is one of hundreds outlined in confidential Department of Homeland Security e-mails and extensively detailed Honduran diplomatic journals reviewed by The Washington Post. The documents show that Central American children, almost all of whom will be released to relatives while they await court hearings, are being sent on meandering, circular and often illogical odysseys. Frequently, children are being apprehended in the border states where their families live and flown thousands of miles to shelters and detention facilities, only to be flown back to the border states where their U.S. journeys started.

The pinballing in the skies over America illustrates the extent to which the U.S. immigration system has been caught unprepared. Too many kids, too few beds and intense political pressure on officials to deal quickly with the flood of young migrants have resulted in an expensive, inefficient shuffle.

“It doesn’t make sense,” said Tony Banegas, the Honduran honorary consul in Arizona, who has interviewed more than 400 children, most of whom were flown from Texas to a federal detention center in the border town of Nogales, Ariz. “They were not prepared.”

Otto Perez Molina, president of Guatemala, says his government is prepared to accept citizens sent home and suggests that more funding for U.S.-Mexico border security may be shortsighted. (Jeff Simon, Ed O'Keefe, Marlon Correa and Randy Smith/The Washington Post)

Quietly, it appears, the federal government has begun to recognize the problem and take small steps to address the logistical chaos. In response to questions from The Post, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for making decisions about the children’s travel and placement, said a pilot program has been launched to reunify children with families at some federal facilities in the Rio Grande Valley rather than first sending them to temporary government facilities at military bases or privately contracted shelters.

“We try to minimize travel,” HHS spokesman Kenneth Wolfe said in an e-mail. “But it depends on the availability of [unaccompanied minor] shelter beds at the time.”

Wolfe declined to comment on individual cases and said he could not provide information about how much the government is paying for the children’s travel within the United States. A spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which operates the flights under a system known internally as “ICE Air,” declined to discuss costs or logistics.

The search for beds is sometimes leading to almost surreal scenarios, with kids bouncing back and forth between the same locations. The experience of Greysi, 15, and Claudia Paula, 17, is a case in point. The Post was granted access to their records, and those of other children, by Banegas, the Honduran diplomat, under the condition that their last names not be used.

The girls are from Saba, a small town in northern Honduras plagued by drug violence. Their parents left when they were babies, and they had been living with their grandparents. The death of their grandfather — he was either murdered or died accidentally, no one knows for sure — finally pushed the girls to undertake a days-long bus trip through Guatemala and Mexico to be reunited with parents they knew only as flickering images on occasional Skype calls.

They were taken into custody late last month in Texas and spent a night in the border town of McAllen at a notorious detention center dubbed “the icebox” by migrant children because the air conditioning is set to such a low temperature that kids have to huddle together for warmth.

U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia (D-Fla.), who visited the facility, said he was appalled at the conditions. The children were “all dirty and grungy,” he said. “The smell was almost of wet dog.”

Dangerous journeys taken by unaccompanied children

From Texas, Greysi and Claudia Paula were flown on a government chartered flight to Arizona — the girls’ first time on an airplane — and taken to a federally run center in Nogales, near the Mexican border, that was temporarily being used to process unaccompanied minors.

In the upside-down world of this border crisis, the trip to Nogales represented progress for the girls. Their parents live in Phoenix, a three-hour drive to the north.

“Now, you’re close,” their mother, Elsa, recalled telling the girls when they phoned from Nogales. “Oh, my God, I’m so happy.”

But days later, there was another call. Elsa learned that the girls weren’t being driven to her but instead were being flown on another chartered plane, this time to Oklahoma, more than 900 miles east, to a temporary shelter at Fort Sill, an Army post.

“My world collapsed,” said the mother, who hadn’t seen her daughters since they were toddlers. “I had my girls so close. Now they were going so far.”

The decision puzzled Banegas. The day after the girls were sent to Oklahoma, he received an e-mail notification from the Department of Homeland Security showing that a half-dozen beds were available in Arizona. And not just in Arizona, but in Phoenix, only minutes from the small apartment the girls’ parents rent on a street where almost all the business have signs in Spanish.

In Nogales, the girls said, they had to sleep on a concrete floor. The conditions in Fort Sill were better: They slept in beds and were given fresh clothes.

They stayed in Oklahoma more than a week, then boarded another plane — a commercial airliner, according to interviews with the sisters and their parents.

Finally, after three flights, numerous van rides to and from shelters and approximately three weeks and thousands of miles — the girls were released from federal custody. They are living with their parents in Phoenix and awaiting a court appearance to determine whether they can remain in the United States. When Greysi and Claudia Paula were released, authorities gave their mother a bag holding the now-filthy, smelly T-shirts and jeans they were wearing when they emerged from the Rio Grande.

“Mami,” the girls told their mother, “throw them away. We don’t want them.”

Shuffling children from state to state is expensive. HHS, which runs the Office of Refugee Resettlement, has a budget of more than $860 million to cover costs such as housing and feeding the unaccompanied minors.

In recent months, federal officials have searched for places to house the children. They have encountered protests and reluctant politicians. Currently, the government uses a network of about 100 privately operated shelters scattered across the country, some as far from the border as Virginia, New York and New Jersey.

Federal officials would not explain why children are often housed so far from where they are taken into custody. Wolfe, the HHS spokesman, did not respond to requests to provide the total capacity of private shelters.

Children are also being housed at three converted military sites: Fort Sill, Lackland Air Force Base in Texas and Naval Base Ventura County in California. The military sites have room for 3,000 children.

A fourth — Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state — is being considered as housing for 600 children, but plans have not been finalized.

The children travel to the facilities via an unusual government entity called ICE Air Operations, described as a “very large airline” in congressional testimony by John Morton, who at the time was director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE Air charters Boeing 737s and MD-80s that can transport 135 undocumented children or adults, according to ICE’s Web site. The planes are used to fly deportees back to their home countries, but recently they have gotten heavy use ferrying children to locations in the United States.

An ICE spokesman did not respond to requests for details on how many planes have been chartered. There have been indications that the fleet has expanded during the crisis. In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee last month, an ICE officers union representative said two additional planes have been leased to keep up with demand.

ICE Air also operates as a kind of escort agency, accompanying some minors flown on commercial airliners. Chris Crane, president of the National ICE Council, which represents ICE officers, testified that 60 to 120 ICE officers board commercial planes every day to escort small groups of unaccompanied minors on flights to places around the country where HHS has shelters.

“ICE officers around the nation are under orders to be packed for overnight travel and ready to respond at any time, day or night,” Crane told the Judiciary Committee.

Flight-loads of unaccompanied minors began arriving in Arizona in early June, pushing Banegas, the Honduran consul, into a kind of red alert. He would spend days at a time at a woefully ill-suited federal facility in Nogales that was being used to hold and process a large overflow of unaccompanied children taken into custody in Texas before they were moved to shelters around the country.

There, he interviewed and counseled a 16-year-old with a baby, as well as a girl with a jagged scar on her arm from when she burst through a fence to escape the assassins who had just killed her father in Honduras.

“They had not taken baths in two weeks,” Banegas recalled. “You can imagine the smell.”

People who have spent time with the kids say they seem disoriented, not only from their treacherous trip to the border but also from their circuitous U.S. travels.

“I don’t think my family knows where I am,” Paula McPheeters, a retired schoolteacher and volunteer translator, remembers children asking her. “How are they going to know where I am?”

They also almost always had another question for her: “Where am I?’ ”

One boy in particular sticks out in her mind, a wisp of a child named Oscar, whose family lives in Waco, Tex. “When he crossed that river he knew that he was getting really close to his mother,” McPherson said. Now he couldn’t understand why he wasn’t in Texas anymore.

Language problems have led to more confusion. Many of the children, especially those from Guatemala, do not speak English or Spanish when they arrive, instead using indigenous dialects that are a mystery to their captors, their interpreters and some of their fellow detainees.

Nogales was meant as a short stop on the way to a shelter, which would itself be a stop on the way to reunification with family members. About 85 percent of children detained in the latest wave are being reunified with family, according to HHS, which says the average stay in shelters is 35 days.

Banegas meticulously recorded his interviews with the children on the pages of a thick daily planner given to him by a friend, the mayor of his Honduran home town, Comayagua, which also happens to be the home town of some of the migrant children he helped in Nogales.

One recent evening, he flipped through the planner — an extraordinary document that tells in sparse language and shorthand the story of a crisis unfolding. He compared the names he’d written down with the reports he received from federal officials about the transportation of unaccompanied minors to shelters.

“This guy is going to Pennsylvania,” he said, pointing to a name on a long list.

“Ah. Michigan. First time I see Michigan.”

“New York. I see that a lot.”

One of the boys on the list is named Osman. He is 16 years old and hasn’t seen his mother in 10 years. He crossed the Rio Grande last month, thinking he would soon be back with his mother at her home in Houston.

Instead, he was taken into custody and flown to Nogales. Then he was flown to a shelter in Virginia. He’s been there for more than a month, his mother said in an interview from Houston. She’s been told he will soon be flown back to Texas to be with her. Back to the state where he first entered America, completing the circle.

Manuel Roig-Franzia is a writer in The Washington Post’s Style section. His long-form articles span a broad range of subjects, including politics, power and the culture of Washington, as well as profiling major political figures and authors.
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