The first of nearly 700 refugee children fleeing gang violence in Central America arrived at an Assembly of God church camp in North Texas Friday afternoon.
Ellis County Sheriff Johnny Brown said approximately 50 children arrived on the first two buses and that no others are expected to arrive Friday. The remainder of the kids are expected to continue arriving at the camp in the coming weeks.
Originally 500 children were expected to arrive at the camp, but Friday afternoon that number was increased to 700. The camp had 240 staffers on hand Friday afternoon, but could ultimately have as many as 400.
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The children are between the ages of 12 and 18 and are expected to stay at the camp for 21 days. Afterward, some will be sent to live with family in the United States while others will be deported and returned to their home country or moved to housing facilities on military bases.
Another 300 children are expected to be housed at a church camp at Sabine Creek Ranch.
Lakeview's executive director, Jaroy Carpenter, announced that a team of 200 adults are ready to work with new arrivals at the camp.
"While here, these students will experience recreation, education, church services, and other typical camp programming," Carpenter said in a letter on the camp's website. "It is an absolute privilege that we have the facility, infrastructure, and support to coordinate such an opportunity in service to displaced children."
Increasing gang violence is pushing people out of Central America, said Maureen Meyer, a senior associate for Mexico and migrant rights at the Washington Office on Latin America.
"We need to look at this as much more a refugee situation," she said. Migrating through Mexico and across the U.S. border is very dangerous, but "the level of desperation" in their home countries is making families decide it's worth the risk, she said.
The arrival of the children has sparked intense debate pitting those who are in favor of supporting those seeking shelter or refugee status and those who believe those crossing the border, even children, could pose a security threat.
During another surge of children crossing the border last year, Dallas County Commissioner Clay Jenkins offered to shelter 2,000 migrants. But in the end, nobody came.
A total of 10,588 unaccompanied children crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in October and November, more than double the 5,129 who crossed during the same two months last year, according to the U.S. Border Patrol. The number of family members crossing together has nearly tripled, to 12,505.
U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, who represents Ellis County, told NBC 5 Friday that he tried to stop the transfer of minors to his district. He was not able to and now plans to visit the camp Monday.
Barton is frustrated he just found out Tuesday but says the law does not require notice. He thinks the law should be changed.
The congressman also said that it should be tougher for a minor to get a hearing when he or she crosses the border.
"We want to be a welcoming nation, but we don't want to be an open door, where if somebody just decides to come to America they can come through almost unimpeded," said Barton.
NBC 5's Scott Gordon and Julie Fine contributed to this report.