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State Representative Expects Nearly 300 Migrant Children at Tornillo Shelter by End of Friday

The temporary shelter holding undocumented minors in Tornillo is on course to expand capacity and remain open through the end of 2018. (Carlos Morales / Marfa Public Radio)

By Diana Nguyen

On June 14, the Department of Health and Human Services confirmed that Tornillo - a town 20 miles southeast of El Paso - would become a shelter for migrant children. We spoke with State representative Mary González about the temporary shelter in her district.


NGUYEN: With the "zero-tolerance" policy, can you talk about the backlog it's creating and this the need for tent cities we're seeing?

GONZÀLEZ: Right, so it's two things. The "zero-tolerance" policy and the family separation policy. Because of that, the amount of kids in our system has over doubled, and we just don't have capacity. And so we've had to build literally tents in order to take care of it. And let me just say this — the tent in my district was put up in 24 hours, 98 kids. They're expecting another 200. And it's just happening really quickly. And if it could happen that quickly, it's really scary for what could potentially happen in the future.

NGUYEN: Do you have any idea how many kids are expected to be at the Tornillo site?

GONZÀLEZ: The facility has capacity for 360 kids. But again, because it went up so quickly, we know that could easily be expanded.

NGUYEN: Do you know how quickly they're expecting on having 360 there, is it by the end of the weekend?

GONZÀLEZ: I mean we're already gonna be at 300 by the end of the day in less than 48 hours. We're scared of how fast this could actually expand.

NGUYEN: So who are these children? Are they-- are they kids from other shelters? Are they kids that were separated from their parents? Are they unaccompanied minors who cross? Or is it a hodge-podge?

GONZÀLEZ: It's really a hodge-podge. And the truth is, for a lot of us who are trying to help the situation, even like trying to get donations to the kids we can't even do that. So we don't know a lot of information about who these kids are, about their legal representation, about what their needs are, if any of the kids have disabilities. I mean, all we know is very basic. They're in tents, they're using porta potties, and they really have no access to an outside kind of recess experience. We just know very little about these kids, and that's ones of the things that's so scary.

NGUYEN: How did they get there? Were they bussed?

GONZÀLEZ: I'm nearly positive. But even then, like, I just found out the kids were there and it all happened within 24 hours.

NGUYEN: Something that people are really concerned about is, um, the reporting people have been reading. It really is only talking about boys, do we know where girls are being-- being housed right now?

GONZÀLEZ: No, and again. This is what makes it so scary. Is there is such limited information, even for people who are leaders of their communities - for state reps or congressmen. I've talked to multiple congressmen and women today, and they can't even get the information. So the concern is when so many things are kind of, um, unknown, for very vulnerable children, what's really going on?

NGUYEN: Right now, do we know if there's air conditioning in these tents?

GONZÀLEZ: We do know there's air conditioning. We do know there's air conditioning, we do know there's showers. We do know they have porta potties. But really, that's all we really know.

NGUYEN: Do we know how many tents there are? It's just one?

GONZÀLEZ: One big giant tent with multiple rooms.

NGUYEN: With 98 kids.

GONZÀLEZ: With 98 kids.

NGUYEN: Yeah. I want to go back to my first question, just because I think it can be kind of confusing understanding this backlog. There's a report today from the AP that said 2,000 children have been separated from their parents. And so basically, the shelters have become very very full because you need more beds when you're separating the kids away from their parents...

GONZÀLEZ: Well, it's a change in policy, right? A — Let's start with asylum seekers, people who are seeking asylum, weren't put in detention centers before. They were able to go through the legal process before, so A — we didn't have that influx. Then B — when we started to separate families, because before when we'd have families come over, we'd process them together. And then we would release them on bond to another family member in the United States. And so we didn't have this backlog. Now, we're saying, 'No. Everyone stays in detention centers whether you're seeking asylum, whether you came here without documentation, um, and we're going to separate the families.' And that also complicates the legal part. So now you have parents who don't know where their kids are. Kids who don't know where their parents are, and they're going through two different, um, legal processes. Like, if a kid is seeking asylum and their parent's seeking asylum, before, that'd be one case. Now there are two cases, and what happens when a parent doesn't get asylum, or a kid doesn't get asylum, and the other one does? And so it's a very complicated situation.

NGUYEN: And the re-unification process right now is a little bit murky —

GONZÀLEZ: It's murky and it's long.  It's taking up to forty-five to ninety days to even sometimes figure out where the kids and parents are to start the re-unification process. I mean, this situation I hope brings out the humanity in everybody beyond ideology. Imagine as a parent that your kids are taken away and you have no idea where they're going, and when they're going to be -- when you're going to be reunited with them. I know  my mom when she lost me for two hours one time at a grocery store freaked out. I don't even think it was two hours, it felt like two hours. I think it was two minutes. Freaked out. Imagine the long-term trauma. People - I would call this torture. Child torture.

The Department of Health and Human Services says kids are screened for "visible and obvious health issues when they first arrive at Border Patrol facilities. Children must be considered “fit to travel” before they are moved from the border patrol station to an HHS-funded facility. UAC (Unaccompanied Alien Children) are medically screened and vaccinated within 48 hours of arriving at a HHS facility." 

Diana Nguyen is a reporter for Marfa Public Radio.