FORT SILL, Okla. — Plastered on the walls of an old Army barracks in Oklahoma are childish drawings depicting the American dream.
One crude picture showed a brown building with an American flag flying on top. The building was labeled “high school” in English with “God Bless America” written next to it in an uncertain scrawl. Another featured a school with a big sign that said "Welcome" next to a smiley face. Other children drew pictures of flowers or messages about Jesus.
But the nearly 1,200 teenagers detained on this military base on the dusty plains of southern Oklahoma aren't likely to realize those dreams any time soon. They are awaiting deportation hearings after having crossed the border on their own, unaccompanied by adults, fleeing their violence-torn home countries in Central America. The Obama administration says that most of them will be deported as soon as the backlogged immigration courts get around to hearing their cases.
The children are part of a wave of young unaccompanied immigrants who are showing up illegally in droves at America’s doorstep from violent Central American countries. Just this year, 50,000 kids traveling alone have been apprehended at the border, with at least 90,000 expected before 2015. That’s more than 10 times as many children who were caught by themselves each year before 2012.
The influx has strained the immigration infrastructure for unaccompanied minors, leading the Obama administration to ask three military bases to open their doors and temporarily house the kids until they can be released to a relative or sponsor and await their deportation hearing. A 2008 anti-trafficking law says child migrants from noncontiguous countries must be granted a full hearing before they are sent home.
During a tour of the base, the first time media were given access, reporters were not allowed to ask questions of the young immigrants or of anyone who worked in the facility on Thursday. The 2,700-acre base is dusty and hot, a desolate plains atmosphere very unlike the tropical Central American landscapes the children hail from.
The children — some of whom look so young it’s hard to imagine how they could have made such a dangerous trip alone — are housed in a part of Fort Sill that formerly was used for basic training. The children sleep in tiny cots, head to toe, 60 to a room, just like a young recruit would in the past. But the barracks are decorated with the kids’ own drawings, and whiteboards are filled with inspirational quotes in Spanish.
The children, ages 12 to 17, are given time to draw between English, math and optional Bible study lessons. They get some downtime, too — a group of young teen girls laid on their cots and danced to “Billie Jean” playing on a small boombox. They knew all the words.
In the meantime, the Obama administration is trying to figure out where to put them. Twenty-seven Spanish-speaking case managers talk to the children individually to determine where they should be placed while they await their deportation trial. A few young girls wearing pink-and-purple sweatshirts clutched phones in the case managers room, calling relatives. (Each child is allowed two 10-minute calls a week.)
A nonprofit group, Catholic Charities, gives 45-minute “know your rights” presentations that explain the children should get a lawyer before they go to trial, because they could qualify to stay legally in the United States under asylum law or other statutes. It’s unclear what percentage of the young people will ultimately be allowed to stay under U.S. law, but the Obama administration claims it will be the minority. Unlike in criminal courts, immigration defendants have no right to an attorney and must find their own if they want one.
“Those who cross our border illegally must know there is no safe passage and no free pass. Within the confines of our laws, our values and our resources, they will be sent back to their home countries,” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said on Thursday in a congressional hearing.
The average stay for the children at Fort Sill will be 15 days before they get transferred to a family member or other sponsor in the United States to await their deportation hearings. More than 550 kids have been transferred out of Fort Sill since it opened in mid-June. But current immigration court backlogs mean the average wait time to see a judge is 587 days.
Oklahoma’s politicians have blamed the crisis on Obama, who’s asked for nearly $4 billion from Congress to process the influx of children and prevent more from coming. Reps. Tom Cole and Jim Bridenstine, both Republicans, say Obama’s deferred action program that offers some protections to youth living long-term and unlawfully in the country has encouraged the children to come. The Obama administration says the escalating gang violence in Central American countries have driven families and children to desperation. Honduras, for example, is now the most dangerous country in the world. Immigrant advocates, meanwhile, say the children should be granted asylum and allowed to stay.
The children are unaware that they’ve become the center of a heated political battle, according to Jonathan Ryan, the executive director of the group Raices, which provides them with legal counsel.
“The kids are not political animals,” he said. Ryan’s group gives the unaccompanied minors “know your rights” presentations on the Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. He’s always peppered with questions once he’s done talking.
“They ask when they’re going to get out of there,” he said. “‘How can I get out? What’s going to happen to me? Am I going to have to go back?’”