The east county was at center stage Friday in the controversy surrounding the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy on immigration.
The media was given a first-hand look at a center in El Cajon where migrant children are taken, in some cases after being separated from their parents. The Department of Health and Human Services is arranging the media tours to show that the "rhetoric" about children supposedly being kept in cages or child prisons is untrue.
To avoid too much of a disruption to the children, a limited number of reporters were allowed inside the center. Those reporters then shared their thoughts about what they saw. Kate Morrissey from the San Diego Union-Tribune said, “I felt like a school where kids also sleep.”
Morrissey said there are medical facilities, bedrooms, and classrooms, one of which is used for the cafeteria. There are pictures on the walls of letters and colors and words in Spanish and English. She said in one classroom, children were clapping in support of each other. Outside, Morrissey said the children were excited to play soccer, and there is an area with free weights and exercise bikes.
As of Friday, there were 63 boys ages six to 17 living in the center. Most are children who were unaccompanied when they were found at the border. Ten percent are children who were separated from their parents.
As for other children who have been separated from their parents in San Diego, Morrissey said, “A lot of those kids are kids who have gone to Chicago or New York because the facilities here are pretty full, and they said this facility has been full steadily for years. There are surges in the summer, which we are currently in, so kids arriving now are pretty normal to them.”
Morrissey says the children stay an average of 46 to 47 days before they are matched up with a sponsor, a parent, extended relative, or close family friend who knows the child, or they can go into the foster care system.
Morrissey said there is a bell that rings each time a child is reunited. Morrissey said the children can at any time decide to voluntarily go back to their countries, and Morrissey was told they do have children who do that.
Morrissey said it all seemed very ordinary, with one exception.
“There's the phone room where kids can call their families and that’s where you get the sense that this is a little different space than when you might just have kids in school,” she said.
Morrissey said the children can make two calls per week, either to the United States and to their home countries, and can talk about ten minutes each time.
When asked if the Department of Health and Human Services is cherry picking the best centers to show the media, an official said all the more than 100 shelters in 17 states treat the children well, providing medical care and education.
There are two smaller centers for girls in El Cajon and Lemon Grove. The exact locations are not being disclosed to protect the children’s safety.