, Muskogee, OK

Oklahoma News

July 11, 2014

Fort Sill managing children with military precision

Base houses more than 1,000 border crossers

FORT SILL — Perhaps the most striking thing about the immigration shelter on this Army base that is currently housing more than 1,000 youths is the military efficiency.

Everything — from the number of pairs of underwear (three pairs) issued to a child 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. Child care workers wear blue. Medical personnel wear black scrubs. Custodians wear gray shirts.

Everything is meant to facilitate efficiency among the 1,000 to 1,200 children who 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 passers-by know where to look. Normally, it would hold   Army soldiers undergoing basic training, but base personnel said it was selected as a housing location because the barracks have been empty since April, awaiting renovation.

As immigrant children jumped rope and played soccer, one couldn’t help but notice the sounds of artillery rounds exploding as the grown-ups 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 — who have left 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 in this country. The lucky ones make it to the U.S.-Mexico border, where they’re picked up and taken to facilities including 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 — including death.

Even the media’s first opportunity to tour of the facility Thursday was tightly controlled, by agreement. No recording devices or questions were allowed. Reporters were not allowed to interact with staff members or children or take photos. Reporters were allowed about a minute to view each room. They were allowed only a pen and paper. The tour was supposed to be about 40 minutes.

Since the facility opened for the first time in mid-June, children stay for an average of 15 days before being discharged or transferred. Officials said 566 youths have been transferred or discharged since June 14.

The two government officials leading the tour even read from scripts, from which they never deviated.

But one thing nobody could contain was the vitality and the enthusiasm of the youth.

Although boys make up about 75 percent of all the children picked up nationally, the Fort Sill split is about 50-50.

In one room, 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” blaring from a small boom box.

Across the room, a more quiet group of girls played the shape game Blokus, and 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 checkers.

Boys returning to another dorm cheerfully shouted “We are the Bravo, the mighty, mighty Bravo.” Many of the youths 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 youths speaks Spanish, but signs across the facility are in both languages.

Just looking at many of the youths, 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 in 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. Her story remains a mystery.

Federal officials said they placed so many regulations on the media visit because of privacy concerns. Many of the youths may have a history of abuse or were trafficked or smuggled into the country or have fled from war-torn countries.

Janelle Stecklein is the Oklahoma state reporter for CNHI.

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