Perhaps the most striking thing about the immigration shelter here that is currently housing more than a thousand youth is the military efficiency.
Everything — from the number of pairs of underwear (three pairs) a child is issued to the number of phone calls (two 10 minute phone calls a week) — is tightly regulated. Each employee wears a color associated with his or her duty. Childcare workers wear blue. Medical personnel where black scrubs. Custodians wear gray shirts.
Everything is meant to facilitate efficiency among the 1,000 to 1,200 children that live in the center, a pod of four, three-story barrack buildings — affectionately known by base personnel as “starship barracks” because the buildings are all connected, but spread out. It’s a spartan building inside and out with a reddish roof visible by passing Interstate 44 traffic — if passersby know where to look. Normally, it would hold adult U.S. Army soldiers undergoing basic training, but base personnel said it was selected as a housing location because the barracks have stood empty since April, awaiting renovation.
In the background as immigrant children jumped rope and played soccer, one couldn’t help but notice the sounds of artillery exploding as the grownups continued their daily training operations.
Fort Sill is one of three military bases across the country that are housing these children — ages 12 to 17 — as they leave their families mostly in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, to make a run for the United States border — alone — in hopes of a better life here. The lucky ones make it the U.S.-Mexico border where they’re picked up and taken to facilities like the ones at Fort Sill to give the federal government time to find the children’s guardians or a sponsor to house them while immigration proceedings play out in court. The unlucky meet worse fates — like death.
Even the media’s first opportunity to tour of the facility Thursday was tightly controlled, by prior agreement. No recording devices or questions during the tour were allowed. Reporters were not allowed to interact with staff or children or take photos. Reporters were allowed about a minute to view each room. They were only allowed a pen and paper. The tour, itself, was supposed to be about 40 minutes.
Since the facility opened for the first time in mid-June, children housed at Fort Sill stay for an average of 15 days before being discharged or transferred. Officials said 566 youth have been transferred or discharged so far since June 14.
The two government officials leading the tour even read from prepared scripts, from which they never deviated.
But one thing that nobody could contain was the vitality and the enthusiasm of the youth.
While about 75 percent of all children picked up nationally alone are boys, the Fort Sill facility split is about 50 percent girls and 50 percent boys.
In one room, a group of teenage girls giggled and laughed as they stood in front of a fan that blew their hair back as they danced to the Cyndi Lauper song “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” which blared from a small boom box.
Across the room, a more quiet group of girls played the shape’s game Blokus while another group played Connect 4.
In another building, apart from the girls, the boys were hard at work at arts and crafts. Some weaved intricate bracelets out of yarn, while others played a game of checkers.
Boys returning to another dorm cheerfully shouted “We are the Bravo, the mighty, mighty Bravo.” Many youth greeted reporters with a cheerful “hola.”
While at the center, every youth is taught basic English and math and works on arts and crafts and has the option of attending Bible study. Every employee working with the youth speaks Spanish, but signs across the facility are in both languages.
Just looking at many of the youth, it’s easy to tell that many have lived a harder life.
There were boys, who were spouting their first facial stubble, who looked older than their years.
And in one room, being checked out by a black-scrubbed medical employee, was a young girl wearing a pink shirt and blue shorts. Her prematurely lined face and tired eyes that had seen too much made her look much older than her years.
While that young girl’s story remains a mystery, federal officials said they placed so many regulations on media visit because of privacy concerns. Many youth may have a history of abuse or were trafficked or smuggled into the country or fled from war-torn countries.
Janelle Stecklein is Oklahoma state reporter/CNHI Capitol bureau chief.