Migrant children now at Long Beach Convention Center: A first look at the center

The sleeping area set up inside exhibit hall B of the Long Beach Convention Center where migrant children found at the border without a parent will be temporarily housed. The beds are in pods of 30. Long Beach officials and the U.S. HHS led a tour of the facility in Long Beach on Thursday, April 22, 2021. The center is able to house up to 1,000 children and the first children are expected to arrive by noon today. (Photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)

Migrant children will arrive at the Long Beach Convention Center today, where they’ll be kept until their relationships to identified relatives and sponsors are confirmed.

A group of around 150 children are expected to be brought to the site today, consisting mostly of girls 17 years old and younger, as well as boys 12 years old and under.

The City of Long Beach and local organizations are sharing vastly different narratives about the new facility with the public.

“We just completed a tour of what is really a humanitarian mission of the US government,” Mayor Robert Garcia said during a press conference Thursday, April 22. “This is a humanitarian emergency shelter that will be welcoming migrant children here as early as today.”

The organization Centro CHA agreed with and supported the City’s approval of the center.

“On behalf of our board of directors, we are so proud of our city to take this, this humanitarian endeavor to welcome the migrant children to Long Beach,” Jessica Quintana, Executive Director of Centro CHA, said during the April 22 press conference.

The City Council voted unanimously to allow the federal government to use the Long Beach Convention Center to contain children in its custody on April 6. While the council was meeting that day, the Long Beach Immigrant Rights Coalition (LBIRC) organized a protest outside City Hall condemning the facility and demanding change in the US immigration system overall.

Around 60 gathered outside Long Beach City Hall on Tuesday, April 6 to protest the proposed conversion of the Long Beach Convention Center into a federally-run emergency shelter site that would hold unaccompanied migrant children. (Kristen Farrah Naeem | Signal Tribune)

A statement by LBIRC was read out loud at the protest by Executive Director Gaby Hernandez. At the time she was reading it, organizers believed it was likely the facility would be approved, but it had not yet been confirmed. They turned out to be right, and an updated version of the statement was signed by over 40 other organizations and posted on Instagram.

“We demand transparency and accountability, and having access to the facilities if these children are going to be there, which it looks like they will be there,” Romeo Hebron, Executive Director of the Filipino Migrant Center, said during the April 6 protest.

It does appear that at least some of the interested organizations will be able to have access to the facility and the children inside. The City of Long Beach announced earlier this week that it created an online portal where local organizations and residents can make donations or volunteer their services at the site.

It wasn’t immediately clear what the donations would specifically go towards, only that “resources provided through these donations are intended to make the children more comfortable during their stay in Long Beach and during the reunification process,” according to a City press release.

Pictures emerging from inside the Long Beach Convention Center facility show rows of cots with sheets, pillows and blankets. Some beds have additional items such as books, stuffed animals, and sneakers placed on top or under them.

The sleeping area set up inside exhibit hall B of the Long Beach Convention Center where migrant children found at the border without a parent will be temporarily housed. The beds are in pods of 30. Long Beach officials and the U.S. HHS led a tour of the facility in Long Beach on Thursday, April 22, 2021. The center is able to house up to 1,000 children and the first children are expected to arrive by noon today. (Photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)

There also appears to be sitting areas for the children, with chairs and tables.

The conditions the children will be kept in at the Long Beach Convention Center are believed to be a step up from the overcrowded facilities at the border, where newly arrived minors are often held for longer than the 72 hour limit required by law. Multiple media outlets have shared images of both adults and children in literal cages, sleeping on floors, with only thin metallic space blankets to cover themselves.

Garcia told reporters during the press conference that every migrant child arriving at the Long Beach facility will receive three meals a day, as well as snacks, and also participate in three to four hours of classroom education each day. There is also a large outdoor area on site that has been designated for the children to use for recreation. 

UCLA is also setting up a full sized medical clinic to address any health issues the children may have.

According to an Instagram post by Immigrant Defenders Law Center, which provides free legal services to Long Beach residents undergoing immigration cases in court, although “the best place for these children is in the care of their families and that congregate care for children is not ideal, these emergency shelters are far better than the treatment they would receive in CBP [Customs and Border Patrol].”

Medical exam rooms will be set up inside exhibit hall A of the Convention Center where migrant children found at the border without a parent will be temporarily housed, in Long Beach on Thursday, April 22, 2021. The center is able to house up to 1,000 children and the first children are expected to arrive by noon today. (Photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)

Immigrant Defenders Law Center was among the groups that toured the facility on Thursday, April 22. The law center will be representing some of the children held at the Long Beach site in their immigration cases.

The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights Los Angeles (CHIRLA) also stated that while emergency facilities like the one in Long Beach do provide better conditions than sites run by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), they are not an end solution.

“While a facility like the convention center is preferable to, certainly, a border patrol detention prison, where migrants have been known to be mistreated, disregarded, and even die, housing migrants in large complexes such as this has to be temporary in nature,” Angelica Salas, Executive Director of CHIRLA, said.

Mayor Robert Garcia speaking to officials in the recreation area that children will have access to in the Convention Center. There is an in indoor and outdoor recreation area at this site. Migrant children found at the border without a parent will be temporarily housed, in Long Beach on Thursday, April 22, 2021. The center is able to house up to 1,000 children and the first children are expected to arrive by noon today. (Photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)

But organizers have reminded the community that the lack of metal bars or fencing at the convention center doesn’t change the fact that the children are still stuck in confinement.

The LBIRC demands that the system for providing for unaccompanied migrant children in federal care be completely overhauled so that mass facilities are no longer used. 

They argue that, instead, the government should drastically speed up its vetting of relatives and sponsors. If none can be found within 72 hours, children should then be placed in “small scale, non-restrictive settings for children. That means home-like settings, not a detention center,” according to Hernandez. 

The area set up inside exhibit hall B of the Long Beach Convention Center where migrant children found at the border without a parent will be temporarily housed. Long Beach officials and the U.S. HHS led a tour of the facility in Long Beach on Thursday, April 22, 2021. The center is able to house up to 1,000 children and the first children are expected to arrive by noon today. (Photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)

A City press release tried to assure the public that “the Convention Center has ample space for the children to recreate, learn and receive medical attention if needed.”

But local organizers say praising and highlighting these aspects of the facility is just a tactic to make family separation easier for the public to stomach. 

“The mission of this center here in Long Beach is quick family reunification. The reunification should be done as fast as possible,” Garcia said during the April 22 press conference.

CHIRLA agreed that the focus should be on reuniting children with their parents and families, and gave reassurance that any undocumented parents who came forward to claim their children would not be in danger of deportation.

“We want to make sure that the reunification process happens quickly, that the children and the parents have representation and that they are processed, especially those who might have lost their parents in the migrant trail, that they’re processed as a family unit,” Salas said.

Mayor Robert Garcia speaking to officials in the recreation area that children will have access to in the Convention Center. There is an in indoor and outdoor recreation area at this site. Migrant children found at the border without a parent will be temporarily housed, in Long Beach on Thursday, April 22, 2021. The center is able to house up to 1,000 children and the first children are expected to arrive by noon today. (Photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)

A similar facility was opened in San Diego in late March 2021, and as of April 12 only one child had been reunited with their parent, and that was only because the minor was hospitalized, according to an article by the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Two weeks is already a long time for a child to be without their family, and it appears that the vast majority of children at the San Diego facility will be kept for longer than that. The San Diego emergency facility was the first of its kind in the region and is thought to be an example of what can be expected from the new Long Beach site.

“Even if it has art, even if it has music—doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter—it’s still a cage,” Hernandez told the crowd during the April 6 protest. “People are still limited in their freedom, what they can do.”

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