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Tornillo's "Tent City" Now Holds 1,500 Migrant Children

A Health and Human Services-operated tent shelter housing migrant children in Tornillo, TX will remain open until at least the end of the year. (Courtesy HHS)

By Sally Beauvais

The children don't go anywhere on the grounds unaccompanied. Boys sleep in groups of 20, in rows of insulated tents. In one, shelter Alpha 11, the tightly-made bunk beds are adorned with Halloween decorations. Nearby are shower trailers with hot running water, emergency medical services, and an on-site meteorologist.

Across the country, the government is running out of beds to shelter a record number of detained migrant children currently in its custody — over 13,000 as of October 2. That's part of the reason kids are still living in tents in Tornillo, the small border town hosting what was supposed to be a temporary installation.

The last and only other time reporters were allowed inside the tightly-controlled youth detention facility, a couple hundred kids were there. This time, that number has nearly quintupled. The facility expanded rapidly following a September announcement that it would remain open at least until the end of the year.

Mark Weber is a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services — the federal agency tasked with caring for undocumented kids detained in the US. The department's been criticized for keeping the site open this long.

"When I see reporting that doesn’t reflect the program I know, I know it’s time to let you all back in," says Weber.

Weber is leading a group of reporters on a tour of the grounds, alongside an incident commander from BCFS, the San Antonio-based non-profit that runs the shelter. Modular offices house surveillance and weather-monitoring equipment. A group of boys plays soccer on a turf field, supervised by staff in bright shirts and cargo boots. Girls eat lunch in mess hall adjacent to their sleeping quarters — pork tamales, Spanish rice, refried beans, and street corn.

There’s room for 3,800 kids here now. But according to Health and Human Services, 1,400 beds are on reserve in case one of the agency's shelters in a hurricane-prone area has to evacuate. A far smaller version of the so-called "tent city" sprang up in June of this year — just as news broke that immigration authorities were separating thousands of kids from their parents at the U.S.—Mexico border.

Almost immediately, protests erupted. Elected officials, healthcare providers and demonstrators from across the country descended on Tornillo, demanding the government reunite families separated as a result of the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy.

According to Mark Weber, the facility was built to help relieve some of the shelters across the country that were already filling up before the system began absorbing the thousands of kids separated from their families from April through June of this year. It originally opened with a 30-day contract.

Initially, BCFS — the emergency management non-profit running operation — refused to run a shelter as large as Tornillo's has become. In an email, a spokesperson said the organization would "gladly relinquish" the shelter should HHS secure another contractor to provide care in Tornillo. "We will not abandon children at this shelter and we will not allow children to be held in Border Patrol cells or ICE facilities because of lack of shelter space," they wrote.

Mark Weber stresses the growth of the facility at Tornillo is due to an influx of unaccompanied minors at the border. Many have been moved here recently from other shelters across the country. He says 2018 is on track to become the third largest year for UAC — or Unaccompanied Alien Children — crossings at the border, and that's one of the reasons there’s a need for a temporary shelter like Tornillo.

But according to tracking data on Customs and Border Protection's website, the number of crossings so far this year on par with the last several years. So what’s changed? Kids are being detained for longer periods of time.

Fernando Garcia, Executive Director for the El Paso-based advocacy group Border Network For Human Rights, has some theories as to why that is. He says he's never seen so much fear in the eyes of the undocumented families he works with as he does now. 

"They don’t want to come forward because they don’t have papers," explains Garcia, "and they are afraid that they might be subjected to arrest and deportation."

He says new screening policies are scaring undocumented people away from coming forward to sponsor detained children, many of whom are their relatives. Health and Human Services is now fingerprinting and background-checking every individual living in a potential sponsors’ household. And they share that information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. An ICE spokesperson recently testified before congress that the agency has arrested dozens of people as a result.

Mark Weber says the screenings are necessary to protect the kids. In 2014, under more lenient policies, Health and Human Services released migrant children to human traffickers. He argues additional screenings will help the department prevent that from happening again.

Regardless of the arrests, Weber says, sponsors are still coming forward to care for detained kids in HHS care. Instead, he points a finger at the FBI for taking too long to process background checks, claiming more than half of the kids housed in Tornillo right now could be released to sponsors soon, but they're still waiting on results.

Carlos Spector, a long-time immigration attorney in El Paso, is skeptical of the delay.

"Taking fingerprints is not an act of congress, nor does it take a rocket scientist. Nor to process them. That can be done very quickly," he offers.

For Spector, it reads like a political move — just another layer of deterrence inherent in the Trump administration’s tough immigration policies.

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller is part of a bi-partisan coalition of mayors across the country who penned a letter in September demanding to know how the government was caring for the record number of migrant children currently in its custody. He's worried about the speed at which migrant kids are being released from detention, to go live with sponsors.

"While the broader mass media and country might have thought this was over, we're trying to remind folks it's far from over," Keller says. "And in many ways,  it's being extended and getting worse."

According to Health and Human Services, all of the kids detained in Tornillo right now are 13 to 17 years old. So what happens to the ones who turn 18 at the shelter? Weber says, then, they’re handed over to ICE.


Sally Beauvais is a reporter at Marfa Public Radio.