By Jim Forsyth
LACKLAND AIR FORCE BASE Texas (Reuters) - A half-century-old section of a U.S. Air Force base in Texas has been transformed into a holding and processing center for thousands of children illegally crossing the border from Central and South America without adults.
Among those children are Jose Maquez Soto, 12, who came from Honduras to the United States and now rests on a bunk at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio under a hand-drawn flag of his native country and a message cheering the Honduran squad in the upcoming soccer World Cup.
Jose is one of the 60,000 "unaccompanied minors" - children under 18 - that the Obama administration estimates will enter the United States illegally this year. It projects that number to grow to nearly 130,000 next year, creating what the White House describes as an "urgent humanitarian situation."
Nearly 1,000 of the minors at a time are being sheltered at a facility built about 50 years ago to house new recruits for basic training. The boys and girls will pass along corridors with faded Air Force pictures and new signs written in Spanish that point the way to the dining hall and bathrooms. Since the facility opened three weeks ago, 1,820 children have passed through the center.
About 850 have been released to a vetted family member or a sponsor, said U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Jesus Garcia. The person who takes the child, Garcia says, has to agree to bring the child to an immigration hearing.
The minors flooding over the border are often teenagers leaving behind poverty or violence in Mexico and other parts of Central America such as Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. They are sometimes seeking to reunite with a parent who is already in the United States, also without documentation.
Another facility for minors will open at Naval Base Ventura County in Southern California that will hold a maximum of 600 children.
At Lackland, the children between the ages of 12 and 17 are handed several sheets and towels when they arrive and checked for lice and scabies. They then undergo physical and mental health evaluations, and are assigned a metal bunk from among the rows that line the walls of large barracks-style rooms.
There is little need for storage because, as social workers put it, few of these children arrived with anything other than the clothes they wore on their journey north. The administration estimates it costs taxpayers $252 per child per day.
"The reasons, as we understand them, that contribute to this dramatic increase have to do with economic conditions in those countries, sustained violence in these countries, and the desire of these children to be reunited with family members in the United States," Celia Munoz, the White House Domestic Policy Adviser said.
(Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)