Inside the tent city housing hundreds of migrant children in the Texas desert

Camps have expanded several times over to accommodate new arrivals

Saturday 13 October 2018 19:11 BST
Melania Trump visits Arizona border patrol facility: 'I'm here to support you'

On a barren patch of desert near the border, the incident commander stepped into the Incident Command Post trailer.

Walkie-talkies were charging in the corner. Flat-screen TVs and computer monitors showed surveillance camera footage and weather forecasting models. The 911 dispatch centre, in a nearby trailer, was quiet, and so were the ambulances and fire trucks.

Alpha Shelter and Echo Shelter were also running smoothly. The commander’s team of emergency response experts - veterans of Hurricane Harvey, the Oklahoma City bombing and other disasters around the country and abroad - were busy managing what amounts to a pop-up, multimillion-dollar city in the West Texas desert.

The emergency?

To shelter and care for immigrant teenagers living in the country illegally.

The tent city that the federal government operates at the Tornillo border station about 35 miles south east of El Paso on the Mexico border was built in June as a temporary home for a few hundred migrant children. Four months later, it has rapidly expanded and has nearly quadrupled in size.

The creation and expansion of the Tornillo camp shows the degree to which the Trump administration has taken a disaster-oriented, militaristic approach to the care and housing of migrant youths. The contractor hired by the government has assisted emergency workers in natural and man-made disasters around the globe.

Children in Alpha dorms 1, 2 and 3 eat their snack from 2.30 to 4.15pm, and go to sleep around 10.30pm.

The incident commander, dressed in cargo pants and a baseball cap, said the operation at Tornillo was being handled “just like we run any emergency response - it’s no different”.

The tent city has been open for 120 days, far longer than many of the similar shelters during the Obama administration. Its longevity - as well as its size, cost and tent-city approach to caring for teenagers fleeing poverty and violence - has come under attack from immigrant advocates, Democratic lawmakers and others.

Partly to respond to the criticisms, federal officials took reporters on a roughly two-hour tour on Friday.

Inside an empty boys’ tent called Alpha 11, the tan colour and the rows of bunks with neatly made beds gave it the feel of a military barracks. The boys’ personal belongings were stored in plastic bins under the beds, like footlockers in the Army.

But there were reminders of just who lived there - each bunk bed was decorated with paper pumpkins for Halloween. One boy slept with two drawings over his head: the logo of the Barcelona football team and the blue-and-white flag of Guatemala. Pictures of Jesus and completed jigsaw puzzles were posted on the walls.

The tent city is a large-scale operation on the grounds of a border station in an isolated region far off Interstate 10, with only power lines, mobile phone towers and mountains visible in the distance.

The fenced-in facility has taken on an air of permanence, with artificial turf for the football fields, flooring under the tents and generators for heat and air conditioning. There were lightning rods, private showers and a full-service health clinic. It had its own meteorologist and its own 911 and emergency dispatch system. There was church on Sunday, and three meals a day plus two snacks.

About 1,500 unaccompanied migrant teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 live in the tents. Most of them came from traditional brick-and-mortar shelters that were overflowing. About 80 per cent were boys. The average length of stay was 25 days.

Officials said that none of the boys and girls currently at the shelter were separated from an adult at the border as part of the Trump administration’s controversial family-separation policy, now defunct.

This summer, the largest migrant youth shelter had been the one in Brownsville, Texas, at a former Walmart Supercentre. But that one now has a capacity of 1,401, making Tornillo bigger.

The contractor, a global network of nonprofit groups known as BCFS, has received at least $179m (£136m) in federal contracts in recent years as part of the so-called unaccompanied alien children program. The network ran similar emergency shelters during the Obama administration, including those at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio in 2012 and 2014.

The number of detained migrant children has risen sharply since summer and stood at 13,289 as of 2 October, according to federal data.

The camp was first announced on 14 June with a capacity to house 360 teenagers for 30 days. Federal officials have rapidly expanded it since then, and it now has the capacity to house a total of 3,800 youths. About 1,400 beds have been kept open in anticipation of any hurricane-related evacuations of shelters in Florida.

Because the shelter is on federal property, it is not licensed by Texas child welfare officials, and it does not have to adhere to the same regulations that other traditional migrant youth shelters must follow to maintain their state licensing.

The incident commander said unapologetically that they exceed the minimum state standards for child-care facilities in a host of areas.

Federal officials do not use the phrase “tent city” to describe the shelter. And they call the tents “soft-sided facilities” or “semi-permanent structures“.

Officials with the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the care of migrant youths through its Office of Refugee Resettlement, said there was an influx of unaccompanied children coming across the border, the effect of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy and the toughening of the vetting process for the children’s potential sponsors.

Most of the children at Tornillo are waiting for the results of FBI checks on their potential sponsors. The children cannot be released to the sponsors until fingerprinting and criminal background checks are completed.

Indeed, such newly introduced requirements, like the need for sponsors to provide their fingerprints and those of other adults in their households, have delayed even the clearest sponsorship applications, like those brought by parents.

Immigration enforcement authorities have also begun using the fingerprints to arrest applicants - most of whom are unauthorised immigrants themselves - which has kept some potential sponsors from coming forward.

Robert Carey, who under President Barack Obama ran the Office of Refugee Resettlement, said the delays should not come as a surprise.

“Whether accidental or intended, it’s a predictable consequence of arresting sponsors who come forward that fewer sponsors are going to come forward, and children are going to stay in care for longer periods of time,” he said.

Mark A Weber, a spokesman for Health and Human Services, said on Friday that sponsors continue to come forward, and the agency had not noticed any sizeable drop-off in those willing to go through the process.

In deciding whom to place in the tent city, the government said it would only send children 13 and older, and those who were close to being released to sponsors in order to minimise the length of time spent there.

“This is a last stop, if you will,” Weber said of Tornillo.

On Friday, it was hard to tell who outnumbered whom at the shelter - staff members or the children. Among the 1,500 staff were social workers, barbers, medical personnel, mental health counsellors and firefighters.

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They were everywhere on Friday in their first-responder-style yellow vests, pushing brooms and checking fire trucks. When a group of boys walked to the bathrooms, they were escorted by workers.

Inside Echo Shelter, a huge, steel-reinforced tent for girls, teenagers in puffy winter jackets lined up preparing to go outside. In a math class in a cafeteria-style room, girls sat at tables with workbooks as a teacher explained the question on the projector screen: “What is an equation?”

Housing children in Tornillo costs about three times as much as placement in a traditional shelter, according to government figures. Weber could not provide a figure of the total cost to establish and run the tent city.

But he said that standard shelter beds cost $250 (£190) per day, and temporary emergency shelter beds cost more than three times that.

New York Times

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