In a residential section of Harlingen, Tex., a man in a gold pickup truck guarded the front gate of a shelter for young children run under a federal contract by Southwest Key. The shelter is a white frame house with a spacious yard covered with a thick layer of grass.

A worker leaving the shelter in her truck is asked how the kids inside are faring.

“They’re eating better than you,” she said Friday. “For lunch, they had fish, carrots, broccoli, a dinner roll. They’re being treated very well.”

A colorful jungle gym and a volleyball net sit in the front yard, which is shaded by tall trees. Neighbors said the facility has an indoor pool. One neighbor recently saw several little girls dressed in pink tops and shorts playing on the swings in the front yard. There are small basketball courts and two red tricycles for little kids.

Several neighbors expressed concern that the children are rarely outside. Neighbors said the children at Southwest Key can watch television and are taught arts and crafts, such as creating paper flowers.

“As a mother, I don’t like it,” said neighbor Liliana Barajas, 36. “They don’t bring them out enough. They’re kids. The last thing you want is for them to feel what they are in. It’s like a home prison to them. It’s heartbreaking.”

Sacchetti and Sieff reported from Texas; Fisher from Washington. Michael Miller in Arizona; Nick Anderson, Theresa Vargas, Abigail Hauslohner and Nick Miroff in Washington; Trevor Bach in Detroit; Marissa Lang in Bristow, Va.; Jahi Chikwendiu in Harlingen, Tex.; Rob Kuznia in Temecula, Calif.; and
Lori Rozsa in Homestead, Fla., contributed to this report.