originally published by The New York Times
A 15-year-old migrant boy who was housed in a large shelter near the southern tip of Texas walked off its premises on Saturday and disappeared into the borderland, officials said.
The shelter, a former Walmart in Brownsville, Tex., that was repurposed as the largest migrant child care center in the country, has come under intense scrutiny as children who were separated from their parents under President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy began being housed there.
On Sunday, the nonprofit group Southwest Key Programs, which operates the center known as Casa Padre, confirmed that the teenager was missing.
The news of a teenager’s departure came as company officials sought to reassure members of Congress and the news media who had toured the center that the roughly 1,500 boys living there, aged 10 to 17, were well cared for and closely monitored.
A spokesman for Southwest Key, Jeff Eller, said on Sunday it could not legally require children to stay on the premises if they sought to leave, and that “from time to time” children had left several of its 27 shelters for immigrant children.
“We are not a detention center,” Mr. Eller said in a statement. “We talk to them and try to get them to stay. If they leave the property, we call law enforcement.”
Federal officials echoed that position, saying they could not stop a child who attempted to leave. The officials did not respond to a question about how many children had walked away from migrant centers nationwide.
Mr. Eller said that less than 1 percent of all of the children who have come through Southwest Key’s centers have left, though he declined to provide specific numbers.
The revelation that children can leave such centers on their own raised a host of questions about the shelter system: What happens to their immigration proceedings; how family members can reunite; whether they can sidestep the lengthy process of being approved for release to a parent or sponsor; and who is responsible for their safety, especially in an area like the Rio Grande Valley, one of the busiest corridors for human trafficking.
Michelle Brané, the director of the migrant rights and justice program at the Women’s Refugee Commission, a research and advocacy organization, said that while groups like Southwest Key cannot act in a law enforcement capacity and lacked the authority to “tackle a kid and restrain them,” officials there must call the authorities when children leave the premises because they are technically in federal custody.
It is possible the children who leave simply want to “go find their parents,” she said, adding, “If children are running away, that raises questions about the care that’s being provided.”
Mr. Eller said the teenager left Casa Padre at 3 p.m. on Saturday and did not return. Staff members tried to keep the boy there, as they do with all children who want to leave, he said.
“It’s a conversation, a conversation that we’re here to help you, we’re here to help you get back with your family,” he said. “We can’t help you if you decide to leave.”
The teenager’s leaving was reported to the police in Brownsville, who did not respond to requests for comment on Sunday.
Federal officials said the boy had presented himself at the border alone. If the teenager is found, he will go back into the custody of the Department of Homeland Security and be referred again to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, officials said.
Tony Martinez, the mayor of Brownsville, said he could not recall a previous case of a child walking away from Casa Padre.
“If the facility was such a great idea, why are they trying to get out?” he said on Sunday. “Most of the people that escape, they escape from jails. They escape from prisons, because it’s not a fun place to be at. I can just imagine what might be going through that young man’s head, at 15 years old: ‘What am I doing here?’”
Representative Filemon B. Vela Jr., a Democrat who represents Brownsville, toured Casa Padre with other Democrats and said it was “difficult to comprehend how a child could escape the facility.”
“For now, we can only pray for the child’s well-being and hope that authorities are able to find him,” he said.
Controversy over Mr. Trump’s immigration policy erupted after the federal government announced that it would pursue a “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting every adult who illegally crossed the border or tried to.
On Saturday, the government said it had reunited 522 migrant childrenwho were separated from adults, and was seeking to reunite the more than 2,000 other children in federal custody who were also separated.
The Casa Padre shelter, a state-licensed child care facility, houses two sets of undocumented youth — those who were separated from their relatives by the Trump administration’s family-separation policy and those, like the missing teenager, who had illegally crossed the border unaccompanied by a parent or guardian. The majority were unaccompanied youth.