TORNILLO – Federal officials at the tent city temporarily sheltering hundreds of unaccompanied immigrant children in West Texas pushed back Friday against reports that children there did not have adequate access to education, legal representation and mental-health care.
But Mark Weber, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, acknowledged that logistical challenges were slowing down the process of placing the children with sponsors – usually parents or closer relatives – who already live in the country.
HHS requires background checks for everyone in a potential sponsor’s home. But those background checks are taking more than three months to process. Last week, 900 kids in Tornillo were waiting for the return of those checks before they could be released.
“We’re working through the process and wanting to speed it up,” Weber said. “But that’s balanced with safety.”
About 1,500 children between the ages of 13 and 17 are currently living in the facility. The majority of them are boys, but about 300 girls also live in the temporary shelter. Boys and girls never mix, the shelter’s administrators said.
Weber said children in these shelters are “treated with dignity and respect.”
“They’re provided a bed, clothing as needed, medical care, education, mental-health services, access to lawyers and any other things the kids would actually enjoy in a domestic setting like this,” he told a group of more than a dozen reporters who toured the Tornillo facility Friday.
The temporary shelter was activated in June when President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy separated thousands of children from their parents and overwhelmed the federal government’s more than 100 existing shelters dedicated to housing unaccompanied children. The facility, however, does not house children separated from their parents by the policy, officials said.
The Tornillo facility, located 35 miles southeast of El Paso in an arid area, has been described as a “tent city” and has been criticized as inhumane by activists who say the children there have little access to services.
The facility’s operators say a staff of 1,500 people works around the clock to monitor the children and provide them educational and medical services.
The facility is in large part for children who are on the cusp of being released. The average number of days a child stays in the facility, officials said, is 29.
“Our goal is to release kids as quickly as possible,” Weber said.
Weber said the background checks for parents were implemented after a surge of immigrant children crossing the border in 2014, when the government released children to people who were not their parents.
Jennifer Podkul, the policy director for the legal advocacy group Kids in Need of Defense, or KIND, had a different view of the delay. Podkul said a new agreement between immigration authorities and Health and Human Services means that fingerprint information from the sponsors and any adult in the sponsor’s household will be turned over to federal immigration authorities.
“That news spread like wildfire. People knew it was not safe anymore to come forward,” Podkul said last week.
News reports had said that arrests by immigration authorities of dozens of persons who had applied to be sponsors could deter other potential sponsors who are also unauthorized immigrant from coming forward. But Weber said that was not the case.
“Sponsors are continuing to come forward,” he said. “The numbers are not bearing that out. People are showing up.”
Inside the facility
At the Tornillo facility, the boys sleep in tents that hold 20 bunk beds each about two feet away from the next. The beds are numbered and the boys’ names are taped to them to identify their temporary owner: Gaspar, Cristopher, Yojan, Espino.
There’s a stuffy scent – which comes when you cram many teen boys into one tent – and Halloween decorations hang from the beds. At the end of the tent, which is supervised by three adult staffers, the boys have hung up posters. “Bienvenidos a Alpha 11” reads one poster of an eagle, which refers to their tent name. Next to it hangs a portrait of Jesus with an inscription: “Jesus, I trust in you.”
Despite the tight quarters, officials say the children are treated well. They get a “Know Your Rights” legal orientation – required by a federal court settlement and provided by legal aid organizations – and access to medical and education services, as well as recreation.
The girls sleep in a much bigger tent that has a capacity for 300 bunk beds for 600 girls. Rows of these bunk beds – decorated by “happy birthday” balloons and Little Mermaid posters – are divided by sheets that act as makeshift walls.
Last week in a news conference, Podkul said unaccompanied migrant minors shouldn’t be put in an emergency shelter like Tornillo when there is no “true emergency.”
Border Patrol statistics show about 46,000 children were apprehended at the southern border in the first 11 months of this year. While those numbers are higher than last year, it’s less than in 2014 when about 68,000 were apprehended and the Obama administration called it a crisis. The numbers were high again in 2016 when nearly 60,000 unaccompanied minors came in.
There are now what’s believed to be a record number of children, 13,000, in the network of shelters overseen by HHS and its Office of Refugee Resettlement, or ORR, a government spokesman said last week. That consistently high number of children flowing into their custody has also impacted the long wait times to connect children with a sponsor, Weber said.
Podkul is also concerned that Tornillo isn’t licensed by the state to care for children, and it has more limited education and legal services than the traditional shelters, which are better equipped for unaccompanied children.
”We don’t want them relying on emergency facilities just to run substandard programs to house children needlessly,” Podkul said.
Dr. Alan Shapiro of the American Academy of Pediatrics has called for independent monitoring of immigrant children in all types of government custody. “This immigration detention system is continuously retraumatizing children,” said Shapiro, who was on the same press call last week with the KIND attorney.
But officials at the facility pushed back on these criticisms, saying children receive round-the-clock care from qualified professionals and are medically screened and vaccinated within 48 hours of arriving at Tornillo. The facility has 40 mental-health staffers, including 32 certified counselors who work directly with the children and do welfare checks twice a day.
The children, who have between a 2nd- and 4th-grade reading level, also receive educational services from experienced teachers, officials said. Most of the children are focused on learning English for when they are released.
But they admit the education is not as formalized as a normal school, with test-taking and grades.
This summer, federal officials expanded the facility’s capacity to 3,800 beds, leading to fears that more children would be housed in the controversial shelter. But officials said that escalation was to create room for 1,400 reserve beds in case a permanent shelter in Homestead, Florida was hit by a hurricane.
The Tornillo facility’s contract was extended until Dec. 31. But officials are not sure if it will be extended again after that.
“It depends on how many kids come,” Weber said.