El Paso, Texas, USA : More than 1,600 migrant children in shelters from Kansas to New York have been roused in the middle of the night in recent weeks and sent with little notice on late-night voyages to their new home: a barren tent city in Tornillo, West Texas, where they do not receive schooling and have limited access to legal representation. The Trump administration opened the facility because shelters that house migrant children have been overflowing.
The camp in Tornillo operates like a small, pop-up city, about 35 miles southeast of El Paso on the Mexico border, complete with portable toilets. Air-conditioned tents that vary in size are used for housing, recreation and medical care. Originally opened in June for 30 days with a capacity of 400, it expanded in September to be able to house 3,800, and is now expected to remain open at least through the end of the year.
“It is common to use influx shelters as done on military bases in the past, and the intent is to use these temporary facilities only as long as needed,” said Evelyn Stauffer, a spokeswoman for the Health and Human Services Department.
Ms. Stauffer said the need for the tent city reflected serious problems in the immigration system.
“The number of families and unaccompanied alien children apprehended are a symptom of the larger problem, namely a broken immigration system,” Ms. Stauffer said. “Their ages and the hazardous journey they take make unaccompanied alien children vulnerable to human trafficking, exploitation and abuse. That is why H.H.S. joins the president in calling on Congress to reform this broken system.”
The move to Texas is meant to be temporary. Rather than send new arrivals there, the government is sending children who are likely to be released sooner, and will spend less time there — mainly older children, ages 13 to 17, who are considered close to being placed with sponsors. Still, because sponsorship placements are often protracted, immigrant advocates said there was a possibility that many of the children could be living in the tent city for months.
“Obviously we have concerns about kids falling through the cracks, not getting sufficient attention if they need attention, not getting the emotional or mental health care that they need,” said Leah Chavla, a lawyer with the Women’s Refugee Commission, an advocacy group.
“This cannot be the right solution,” Ms. Chavla said. “We need to focus on making sure that kids can get placed with sponsors and get out of custody.”
The longer that children remain in custody, the more likely they are to become anxious or depressed, which can lead to violent outbursts or escape attempts, according to shelter workers and reports that have emerged from the system in recent months.
Advocates said those concerns are heightened at a larger facility like Tornillo, where signs that a child is struggling are more likely to be overlooked, because of its size. They added that moving children to the tent city without providing enough time to prepare them emotionally or to say goodbye to friends could compound trauma that many are already struggling with.
Most of the children are Central American teenagers who journeyed to the United States alone, hoping to win asylum status or slip into the country illegally. Known as “unaccompanied minors,” more than half are Guatemalans, who have been fleeing in increasing numbers from destitute villages in the country’s western highlands.
The children are being moved in the middle of the night and without notice to avoid escape attempts.
Migrant children are housed in what are known as unsecure facilities, meaning that doors are unlocked and they can technically leave at any time, though they are closely monitored and strongly discouraged from doing so. Several shelter workers explained that children who are on their way to the rapidly expanding tent city in Tornillo, Tex., are being woken up and moved in the middle of the night because they will be less likely to try to run away in the dark.
The children are told of the move only a few hours prior so that they do not have time to formulate an escape plan, the workers said. (Migrant children are held in unsecure facilities rather than immigration jails, where adult border crossers are housed, because of a federal consent decree that says children can only be detained in secure facilities for 20 days.)
The children are being moved because the shelters that are traditionally used to detain unaccompanied minors are overflowing. They had been hovering at close to 90 percent capacity since May, and each month, more children have been streaming across the border. Because conditions at the Tornillo tent city are generally rougher than in shelters, the government is seeking to minimize time that children spend there, so it is electing to send children who have been in the United States longer and are therefore closer to being released to sponsors, rather than sending new arrivals.
The shelters are licensed and monitored by state child welfare agencies that impose requirements on staff hiring and training, as well as education and safety. Children in shelters receive regular schooling and are required to have access to lawyers who help develop their claims for asylum or other forms of legal immigration status.
Conversely, the tent city is considered an “emergency shelter” and is thus unregulated, except for a loose set of guidelines crafted by the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees it. The guidelines do not require schooling, so children are given workbooks but are not obligated to fill them out. Access to legal services at the tent city is also limited.
More than 13,000 migrant children are currently detained — the highest number yet and a fivefold increase since last year. That is mostly because fewer children are being released to live with sponsors than ever before. Sponsors — usually relatives or family friends — tend to be undocumented immigrants, and policies introduced by the Trump administration have made it easier for immigration authorities to find and arrest potential sponsors who come forward to claim a child. As a result, some potential sponsors have stopped coming forward out of fear. Those who come forward anyway are having to wait longer because of added red tape.
Border crossings of unaccompanied minors jumped in May, and then again slightly in August. However, the last five years of data on unaccompanied minors shows that 2018 numbers are right in the middle. Unauthorized crossings in general along the southwest border have sharply declined over the past two decades, according to government data, though particular groups of migrants, such as Guatemalans and adult men arriving with children, have increased significantly.
The latest estimates from Congress suggest that it costs about $750 a day to house a child in the tent city — about three times as much as the cost of a single placement in a shelter — even though conditions there are comparatively austere. Government grants also pay for the legal representation of some unaccompanied minors. Access to legal representation is limited in the tent city.