Tornillo, an isolated corner on the El Paso County border, Texas, has become home to more than 2,300 migrant children. In June, the Trump administration announced to open a temporary shelter for up to 360 migrant children in Tornillo. Six months down the line, that shelter has transformed itself into a detention center, with thousands of teenagers.
More than 1,300 children have arrived since the end of October. The teenage population mainly compromises of boys and girls of the age group 13-17. Construction at the site continues, as more migrants are expected to come in from the caravans castigated by President Donald Trump enter the United States.
A number of problems have come forward with the speedy growth of the camp. A government watchdog memo obtained by the Associated Press says none of the 2,100 staff are going through rigorous FBI fingerprint background checks. “Instead, Tornillo is using checks conducted by a private contractor that has access to less comprehensive data, thereby heightening the risk that an individual with a criminal history could have direct access to children.”
The camp staffs just one mental health clinician for every 100 children. While the federal policy guidelines say that migrant youth shelters must have one clinician for every 12 children. The mental health care facilities are clearly being sidelined in the Tornillo camp.
As per the Federal’s plan, Tornillo is expected to shut down by December 31. However, this deadline seems impossible to meet as the other facilities do not have an accommodation of extra 2,300 migrants. Since this summer, planned closures have already been moved further thrice.
A 17-year old from Honduras was recently released from the camp, after his family completed extensive background checks. “The few times they let me call my mom I would tell her that one day I would be free, but really I felt like I would be there for the rest of my life. I feel so bad for the kids who are still there. What if they have to spend Christmas there? They need a hug, and nobody is allowed to hug there,” the teen said.
The non-profit social service agency running Tornillo camp for migrant children says it is working with the same care and facilities as required after natural disasters.
“We don’t have anything to hide. This is an exceptionally run operation,” said Krista Piferrer, a spokeswoman for BCFS Health and Human Services, an organization that runs Tornillo. “This isn’t our first rodeo.”
She also said that they haven’t received any updates from the Trump administration about what will happen after New Year’s Eve.
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Mark Weber, said, “Whatever it is we decide to do, in the very near future, we’ll do a public notice about that.”
Coming into the US illegally is a civil offense. However, by law, migrant children without any accompaniment must be sent to a government shelter till the time they are united with a relative or a sponsor while awaiting immigration court hearings. Most of the children who are locked inside Tornillo are not charged with any crime.
“Hearing that more than 2,000 kids are in any kind of detention facility is alarming to me,” Naomi Smoot, executive director of the nonprofit Coalition for Juvenile Justice said. “That’s not where kids should be around the holidays, in particular when they haven’t broken the law.”
Taxpayers spend approximately $1,200 per child per night for care workers, cooks, cleaners, teachers and others. The cost at Tornillo are extremely high for everything – food, water, staff etc. – as it needs to be trucked in and out of the remote area. 35,000 gallons of diesel is brought in each day to operate generators which power air conditioning and heating.
According to BCFS, actual average cost is close to $750 per day, bringing the cost of operations to more than $12 million a week.
Due to the Trump administration’s new requirements on extreme background checks on sponsors and relatives of youths in the government custody, migrant children have to spend more time in the shelters.