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June 14, at 6: Miller,Emma Brown and Aaron C. On Wednesday, for the first time since that policy was announced, and amid intense national interest after a U.

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  • Where once there was a garage, six young people played basketball. 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, immigrant children in three states — approaching half the approximately 11, 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.

    What we operate are shelters that take care of kids. At Casa Padre, which is licensed to house only older children, ages 10 to 17, the proportion is closer to five percent, he said. Each day, the federal government sends Casa Padre a list of children detained at the border to be placed in the shelter, said Jaime Garcia, program director for Southwest Key. They arrive in white vans, half a dozen at a time. Once they are medically cleared, they join the throng of boys in the shelter, where they stay for an average of 49 days, according to Southwest Key officials.

    The number of children at Casa Padre is constantly rising: On Wednesday, it was 1, They line up in hallways featuring murals of U. There is also a mural of former president Barack Obama. It used to be four beds to a room. But as the shelter fills to capacity, a fifth bed — a cot — has been added to each.

    Yellow lines on the ground mark the area boys must line up.

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  • In the cafeteria, a mural tells kids to speak quietly, ask before getting up and not share food. Lights go out at 9 p. There are so many children that they attend school in two shifts: They sit in small, numbered classrooms with yellow walls covered in posters of planets. On Wednesday, through tiny windows they waved to the reporters outside.

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    The boys are allowed to make two phone calls a week. Southwest Key officials said it sometimes it takes days — or weeks — for children to reach their parents. Business briefly slumped a year ago, when the spring surge of unaccompanied teen immigrants failed to materialize. Southwest Key laid off nearly 1, employees, according to media reports at the time.

    But the flood of teens soon resumed, and then the Trump administration began separating families, shunting adults into jails and their children into shelters. The number of children in federal custody spiked by more than 20 percent between April and May of this year. Casa Padre doubled its population over that period, from to 1,, according to a monthly census by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, the agency that licenses such shelters.

    As of late May, the agency permitted Casa Padre to house 1, people. By the beginning of this week, it had granted the shelter permission to house 1, On Tuesday, the agency agreed to allow up to 1,, a spokesman said. So, just one year after the mass layoff, Southwest Key is racing to keep up with a new boom.

    And officials have also announced plans to erect tent cities to hold hundreds more children in the Texas desert where temperatures regularly reach 40C F. Read More With that increase, as of Wednesday, ORR spokesman Brian Marriott said, the office was holding 11, children in more than shelters across 17 states. Five cot-like beds have been squeezed into bedrooms built originally for four.

    The organization has hired about employees in the past two weeks, and is aiming to hire another as soon as possible, Sanchez said. Sanchez, a native of Brownsville, founded Southwest Key in with a focus on juvenile justice programs. In the late s, he said, the organization won a federal contract to operate a shelter at the border for immigrants, many fleeing El Salvador. Now, two decades later, Southwest Key operates 26 shelters for immigrant youth in Texas, Arizona and California.

    The growth has been accompanied by increased compensation for executives. Sanchez said the change reflected a retirement contribution rather than a salary increase — recognition of previous years spent working for a low salary and no benefits. We just go out there keeping kids out of prisons and jails. Federal officials declined a request to interview children and employees at Casa Padre.

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    But a Washington Post reporter recently interviewed a teenager who spent about three months in Casa Padre, from February until early May of this year. Jairom, 17, had fled an abusive home in Honduras and traveled through Mexico for a month, mostly by train, before he was detained crossing the Rio Grande.

    His family asked that only his first name be used.

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