FORT SILL, Okla. — Perhaps the most striking thing about the immigration shelter here that is currently housing more than a thousand youth is the military efficiency.
Everything — from the number of pairs of underwear (three pairs) a child is issued 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. Childcare workers wear blue. Medical personnel where black scrubs. Custodians wear gray shirts.
Everything is meant to facilitate efficiency among the 1,000 to 1,200 children that 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 passersby know where to look. Normally, it would hold adult U.S. Army soldiers undergoing basic training, but base personnel said it was selected as a housing location because the barracks have stood empty since April, awaiting renovation.
In the background as children jumped rope and played soccer, one couldn’t help but notice the sounds of artillery exploding as the grownups 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 — as they leave 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 here. The lucky ones make it to the U.S.-Mexico border where they’re picked up and taken to facilities like 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 — like death.