A crucifix necklace hangs from a boy's neck as he sits on his bed occupied with an art project inside a Fort Bliss complex on Wednesday.
Faith seems to be a driving force here, as unaccompanied child migrants seek to get to a better place, leaving behind their culture and homes. Inside the dinner hall of the complex, a drawing of the Costa Rican flag had writing in Spanish that read, "A country of many beautiful women."
Fort Bliss' Doña Ana Range Complex, near Chaparral, New Mexico, is temporarily a shelter to nearly 500 unaccompanied children. The children made the dangerous journey from Central America — primarily El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — to either escape violence in their home country, seek better economic opportunities or reunite with family already in the U.S. Central American countries have some of the highest murder rates in the world. The journey puts children at risk of human trafficking, exploitation and abuse.
The overall number of apprehensions at the border remains at a historic low, officials said, but there has been a recent surge in unaccompanied children apprehended at the border.
In fiscal year 2014, which begins in October and ends at the end of September, 58,000 unaccompanied children were apprehended, according to officials with the Department of Health and Human Services. In 2015, numbers dropped to 34,000. However, this fiscal year it jumped up to 47,000 as of July. In the last three months, 17,000 unaccompanied children have been apprehended.
As required by law, the children live at the shelter while HHS officials identify adults who can care for them while their immigration cases proceed in court. The Department of Homeland Security transfers certain children age 17 and under who are apprehended at U.S. borders without parents or other legal guardians to the care and custody of HHS. Children remain in HHS care until they are released to an appropriate sponsor, usually a relative, while their immigration cases are settled, officials said.
The unaccompanied children are cared for by the HHS' Administration for Children and Families.
The children at the Fort Bliss temporary shelter range from ages 13 to 17. If a child turns 18 during their stay, they are turned over to DHS, an HHS official said.
The shelter is currently able to aid 500 kids, but the ultimate capacity is 1,800. To care for the unaccompanied children at a temporary shelter, it costs the HHS $750 a day per child. At permanent shelters, the cost is $223 a child per day.
There are more than 100 permanent shelters in 12 states in the U.S. The Defense Department has assisted in the effort by providing vacant spaces in military installations. Fort Bliss was a chosen because of its proximity to the border and other regional permanent shelters. It was also considered move-in ready. The temporary shelter opened Sept. 6.
The average span children spend in a shelter is 35 days, officials said. However, it's expected to be a shorter stay at a temporary shelter. Only children who have been medically screened and vaccinated will be at the facility. All children receive a TB test and girls over the age of 10 receive a pregnancy test.
The shelter has two ambulances and a fire engine. The shelter is operated by 300 people, which includes the command staff, care workers, teachers and more. Security at the shelter is run by off-duty Texas and New Mexico law enforcement officers, an HHS official said.
The ratio of caretakers to children is 1-to-8.
The facilities at the Doña Ana Range Complex are clean and in good condition. Each facility has a dash of art on the walls done by the children at the shelter. At the center of the facility, children have space dedicated to outdoor recreational activities such as soccer. Throughout the day, children have a schedule of planned activities, including educational activities, recreational time and time to meet with caretakers. In class, children are provided with an English as a Second Language education that covers social studies, math and science.
There are 26 beds in each dorm and the children are accompanied by three care workers. Children receive three meals a day and two snacks; the meals meet nutritional standards of Texas schools.
Fort Bliss is not the first local military installation to house unaccompanied children. Holloman Air Force Base outside Alamogordo, New Mexico, sheltered migrant children in January and February.