The Trump administration has transferred hundreds of children who entered the U.S. illegally to a temporary tent shelter on the border in Texas that immigrant advocates have condemned as “substandard.”
The camp, which is operated by a private contractor, has been quietly expanding on a barren desert tract in the border town of Tornillo, southeast of El Paso, and now houses 1,600 immigrant children.
It is considered temporary and therefore is not required to be licensed as a childcare facility or to provide the same medical, mental health and educational services as roughly 100 other facilities for children across the U.S.
Immigrant rights advocates, who say lawyers have been restricted from visiting the shelter, called on Congress this week to demand better oversight.
The vast majority of the children housed there arrived at the border by themselves or with adults who were not their parents, according to Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for placing them.
Jennifer Podkul, policy director at the legal advocacy group Kids in Need of Defense, said none were targets of the controversial “zero tolerance” policy that separated parents and children detained while crossing the border together in May and June, before Trump succumbed to political pressure to end the practice.
But children at the shelter are indirect victims of that policy, she said.
Efforts to find them homes and remove them from government custody have stalled because federal officials have been so consumed by trying to reunite families separated under zero tolerance, Podkul and other advocates said in a telephone briefing with reporters Wednesday.
Podkul said that background checks on relatives and other potential sponsors who could take in children have been delayed by up to two months.
The background checks are conducted by the Department of Homeland Security under an expanded protocol that took effect this spring. Federal officials say the new policy protects children, but critics argue that it is meant to help immigration authorities identify other people in the U.S. illegally.
In any case, children are staying in shelters longer before being placed with relatives or other sponsors. Wolfe said the average shelter stay is now 60 days, double the 2017 average.
In the first 11 months of fiscal year 2018, 45,704 children were apprehended on the southern border, a 19% increase from the previous year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
That’s far lower than the 77% increase between 2013 to 2014 — when the Department of Health and Human Services opened temporary shelters on military bases in California and Texas.
The number of youth caught monthly has actually dropped since zero tolerance took effect in May.
Currently, more than 13,000 immigrant children — the largest number in recent memory — are living in government-contracted shelters, according to Wolfe.
The Tornillo shelter, which opened in June with several hundred beds and has expanded to 3,800 beds, has been run under short-term contracts by BCFS, a Texas-based nonprofit.
Until recently, only one lawyer was allowed to visit. Ten were allowed in this week, but Podkul said that’s still not enough.
“There are obvious concerns about keeping kids in such a facility for long periods of time,” she said. “We’re worried that this is a trend to hold children in lower standards than what’s required by current law.”
Dr. Alan Shapiro, who serves in the American Academy of Pediatrics Immigrant Health Special Interest Group, urged Congress to create an independent medical and mental health monitoring team for children in government custody.
“We don’t want them relying on substandard programs to house children needlessly,” said Shapiro, who has treated migrant children separated from their parents and has visited federal immigration detention centers.
He said he was troubled by a New York Times report this week that children have been transferred to the Tornillo facility from other shelters nationwide late at night, a practice he called “terrifying.”
“There’s this constant disruption happening in their lives which really creates anxiety in children,” Shapiro said.
Families Belong Together, a national coalition of advocacy groups, plans to protest at Tornillo and other federal immigration facilities next week, according to Jess Morales, the group’s political director.
“We will not stand by while our government abuses children,” she said.
In the meantime, federal officials are still trying to clean up the mess caused by the zero-tolerance policy. A total of 254 children remain in limbo in the U.S. because their parents were deported.