A Homeland Security vehicle leaves through a gate at the Long Beach Convention Center, which is now housing migrant children, April 22, 2021. / Un vehículo de Seguridad Nacional sale por una puerta en el Centro de Convenciones de Long Beach, que ahora alberga a niños migrantes, 22 de abril de 2021. Photo by / Foto por Thomas R. Cordova.

Hundreds of unaccompanied migrant children began arriving Thursday in Long Beach where they’ll be held at the Convention Center while federal officials work to reunite them with family or sponsors in the U.S.

Federal officials with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have been preparing for this over the past couple of weeks, ever since the Long Beach City Council agreed to lease them the space. The feds have installed temporary facilities to hold kids at the Convention Center, away from the COVID-19 vaccine clinic in the parking lot.

The preparations reached their final stages Thursday as local politicians including Congressman Alan Lowenthal and Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia toured the facility shortly before children began arriving.

Who is coming to Long Beach?

According to city officials, President Joe Biden’s administration has said the Convention Center will house up to 1,000 unaccompanied minors found at the border. Some are in sibling pairs, and they’re mostly girls, but there will be some boys under 12, according to federal officials.

Kids arriving at the border are often seeking asylum after fleeing poverty and gangs in Central American countries like Honduras and Guatemala.

Officials have described the Convention Center facility as a temporary stop for the kids, who already have family members or other sponsors identified in the U.S. who will eventually take custody of the children.

Bringing in kids with pre-identified sponsors is intended to move them swiftly through the Convention Center, which the city says must be vacated by Aug. 2 so the facility can begin hosting conventions again. There are already three planned for August.

How did we get here?

The city and federal government have positioned the Convention Center shelter as part of a humanitarian effort to ease overcrowding. The number of unaccompanied kids arriving at the border has reached all-time highs and the government has run out of space to house them. Recently, they have been packed into facilities well over capacity.

Republicans have blamed the sharp increase on the Biden administration, which is still using emergency pandemic powers to quickly expel many asylum seekers but has also eased Donald Trump’s “stay in Mexico” policy for kids. Democrats have argued this is a cyclical problem, pointing to the beginning of the increase during the Trump presidency last year, as well as a large uptick in the summer of 2019. Experts say the U.S. is not alone in seeing a spike in refugees and asylum seekers, and recent natural disasters in Central America have exacerbated the problem.

In the U.S, the Department of Health and Human Services, which is supposed to take custody of migrant kids from the Border Patrol after no more than 72 hours, has scrambled to find space for them. They’ve already converted convention centers in San Diego and Dallas into temporary shelters, and another is planned for the Fairplex in Pomona.

In March, the White House reached out to Long Beach’s mayor asking if the city could find space to house kids. The city identified the Convention Center as a possible location and Garcia swiftly set about rallying support for the idea behind the scenes.

The idea drew unanimous City Council support. There has been some pushback, however, from local immigrant rights organizations who say the need to detain children is a symptom of a broken immigration system. The Convention Center was also vandalized earlier this month with anti-ICE slogans and phrases like “no kids in cages.”

How can you help?

The city of Long Beach is accepting donations through the Community Foundation, “to make the children more comfortable,” although it’s not clear yet what the money can be spent on.

The city is also accepting book donations for the kids, which can be dropped off at several locations.

People and organizations interested in volunteering or providing other services can fill out a form provided by the city, but any decisions on who can help will ultimately be made by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, which is running the facility.

Anyone interested in applying to become a sponsor for unaccompanied migrant kids in the future can get more info here.

Federal government set to pay over $35 million to house migrant children in Long Beach

Jeremiah Dobruck is managing editor of the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @jeremiahdobruck on Twitter.