During a media tour of the austere Border Patrol law enforcement training center turned immigration jail, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement said the goal is to process the immigrants and have them returned to their homes within 10 to 15 days.
Artesia Mayor Phillip Burch said he was told by federal officials that the detention center will likely be in operation for six months to a year, although he thinks it could stay open longer than that "unless the policy in Washington changes."
Last week, the Obama administration announced plans to convert the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center into one of several temporary sites being established to deal with the influx of women and children fleeing gang violence and poverty in Central American.
Border Patrol agents have apprehended more than 52,000 immigrant children crossing the border alone since October.
The Artesia center will only house children caught traveling with their mothers or other female relatives. Unaccompanied minors will continue to be turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services.
The center will hold nearly 700 people in a barracks-style setting, with 30 rooms per building, four bunk beds per room. Each of the three buildings will have one room as playground and one for medical staff.
The buildings have a refrigerator that will be stocked with water, milk and fruit so the children will be able to eat whenever they want. There will be toys, video games and televisions for the kids. And once an 8-foot fence is erected, the children will be allowed to play outside. They may even build a soccer field, the official said.
Some have questioned the amenities, saying they will only encourage immigrants who are desperate for a better life to try to come back.
News of the detention center opening in Artesia has stirred up fear and anger among some residents who worry about possible illnesses, a lack of resources and dramatic changes to this small, close-knit city in the middle of oil and gas country.
"I don't know if they are bringing hungry people or dopers," Cecil Laman, 89.
Others criticized the federal government's response.
"What we should do is take them to the Air Force base, put them on a plane escorted by two fighter jets and send them back, and come back for the next group," said Collier Allan, 62, who lives near the training center.
Burch said some residents were worried about unvaccinated children and some immigrants possibly trying to escape. But he said federal doctors plan to evaluate all immigrants upon entry and then again 48 hours later to ease concerns over diseases.
The federal agency said all the immigrants will be checked for criminal records, and that the officers who will do the interviews are trained to identify criminals.
Asked if it felt like a new prison was opening up in the city, Burch said "to some degree."
"But the people here are women and children ages infant to 17. They are not hardened criminals," he said.
Associated Press writer Russell Contreras in Albuquerque, N. M., contributed to this report.