Skip to Content

A Former Walmart Is Now Housing Migrant Children. Here’s What It’s Like Inside

In March of 2017, a former Walmart building in Brownsville, Texas near the U.S.-Mexico border was converted into a shelter for unaccompanied children who entered the U.S. illegally. Called “Casa Padre,” it is now the largest such shelter in the country and houses nearly 1,500 boys between the ages of 10 and 17.

This week, federal authorities allowed a small group of journalists to tour the center, marking the first time news organizations have seen it since the Trump administration announced its new “zero-tolerance” policy on illegal immigration. The visit came shortly after a controversy in which the shelter barred Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon from entering when he tried to tour the facility on June 3.

Since Attorney General Jeff Sessions introduced that policy in May, hundreds of children have been separated from their parents at the border, and some have been sent to the former Walmart in Brownsville. In May, Casa Padre was licensed at a capacity of 1,186, according to the New York Times. Its capacity is now roughly 1,500.

The details of the shelter are strange, and have been criticized by many on social media as seeming like they belong to a detention center rather than an institution meant to care for children.

The former superstore stretches across 250,000 square feet, but the bedrooms for the children housed there are tightly packed. Each bedroom contains five cot-like beds, according to ABC News, and those teens share a 10-foot-by-24-foot space.

The children receive three meals a day and two snacks. They attend classes in the shelter every weekday, according to the Times, and spend two hours outside. The facility also offers video games and pool tables for recreation.

Inside, the space no longer looks like a Walmart. It is brightly lit and areas such as the car oil changing station have been repurposed for activities like watching movies. The former McDonald’s is now a sort of cafeteria.

The walls are also covered with murals, many of which focus on U.S. history. The one that has perhaps drawn the most attention is of President Donald Trump himself. It features a quote that appears to be from his book The Art of the Deal: “Sometimes by losing a battle you find a new way to win the war.”

Reporters who visited the shelter were not allowed to interview the children, but said that the kids did not look visibly upset. The company that runs the facility, Southwest Key, told the Washington Post its goal is to take care of the children. “We’re trying to do the best that we can taking care of these children. Our goal ultimately is to reunite kids with their families,” Southwest Key’s founder and CEO Juan Sanchez told the paper.

The shelter was reported to be clean and well staffed. But still, there are aspects like the few windows being covered with black mesh, according to the Times, and the fact that children can make two calls a week—perhaps to their separately detained parents—that remind visitors that the occupants are not there voluntarily.