ROWNSVILLE, Tex. — For more than a year, the old Walmart along the Mexican border here has been a mystery to those driving by on the highway. In place of the supercenter’s trademark logo hangs a curious sign: “Casa Padre.”
But behind the sliding doors is a bustling city unto itself, equipped with classrooms, recreation centers and medical examination rooms. Casa Padre now houses more than 1,400 immigrant boys, dozens of them forcibly separated from their parents at the border by a new Trump administration “zero-tolerance” policy.
On Wednesday, for the first time since that policy was announced, and amid intense national interest after a U.S. senator was turned away, federal authorities allowed a small group of reporters to tour the secretive shelter, the largest of its kind in the nation.
Inside, in what used to be a McDonald’s, shelter employees served scores of mostly teenage boys chicken, vegetables and plastic fruit cups. In the former loading docks, children watched the animated movie “Moana,” dubbed in Spanish. Where once there was a garage, six young people played basketball.
“They used to do oil changes in here,” said Martin Hinojosa, director of compliance for Southwest Key Programs, the nonprofit that runs Casa Padre under a federal contract.
Texas-based Southwest Key has grown quickly in recent years, fueled by surges of young Central Americans seeking refuge in the north. The organization now houses 5,129 immigrant children in three states — approaching half the approximately 11,200 currently in federal custody — in facilities that are being strained to capacity, according to Juan Sanchez, the founder and chief executive.
The policy of criminally prosecuting all who cross the border illegally is creating a new category of residents at these holding centers, young boys and girls who are grappling with the trauma of being unexpectedly separated from their mothers and fathers. To accommodate them, Sanchez said, Southwest Key is retrofitting some facilities with smaller bathrooms, smaller sinks, smaller everything.