The Trump administration is opening a new 2,500-bed holding facility for adult migrants here, constructing a large soft-sided structure close to the U.S.-Mexico border on the former site of a controversial shelter for migrant children, officials said Friday.
Roger Maier, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection, confirmed that work to build the facility began this week. He said it will be designed to hold single adults who have crossed the border and have been taken into custody — it will not hold family units or unaccompanied children — and that it will “provide relief for overcrowded Border Patrol” stations as the agency awaits transferring the migrants to Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody.
“CBP anticipates populating the facility in late July or early August,” Maier said.
The new adult holding facility is being built at the Marcelino Serna Port of Entry, about 30 miles southeast of El Paso. The port is named after Serna, a Mexican immigrant who lived in El Paso and as a U.S. Army soldier became a decorated World War I hero.
That port was the home of a temporary shelter for unaccompanied migrant children from June 2018 to January 2019. It held more than 2,700 children at its peak in December, drawing repeated protests and becoming a focal point for critics of the administration’s border policies.
The child shelter closed in January after the Trump administration loosened some requirements it had created for potential sponsors offering to care for unaccompanied migrant children. A short time later, a large surge of Central American children began arriving at the border, and the administration expanded a temporary child facility in Homestead, Fla., and opened a new one recently in Carrizo Springs.
CBP officials said single adults at the new facility will be provided three daily meals, showers, medical services, laundry, custodial services and temperature controls.
Such CBP facilities in the past have been used to house migrants for less than 72 hours, but that has changed in recent months as the number of families crossing the border grew. Migrants have been held for weeks or months in facilities not designed to hold them that long, drawing increasing criticism from congressional Democrats.
Vice President Pence visited such a facility in McAllen on Friday, seeing hundreds of migrants crammed behind caged fences, some who said they were hungry, thirsty or were in need of a shower. Some said they had been there a month or longer. Squalid conditions at border facilities have drawn widespread concern as the migrant flow across the border has surged to more 100,000 per month this year, at times overwhelming the U.S. immigration system.
The new holding facility in Tornillo came as a surprise to Georgina Pérez, a member of the State Board of Education who lives here. She said residents had not been notified that the facility was under construction and was staffing up.
“It’s 2019, and we’re still treating some people as less than human,” said Pérez, a Democrat who was a critic of the child detention facility.
Border crossings fell 28 percent from May to June, something the Trump administration attributes to increased Mexican immigration enforcement and U.S. policies aimed at deterring migration. It is unclear whether that decline will be part of a trend, and with construction of new facilities, it appears the U.S. government is preparing for the influx to continue.
Republican Representative William Hurd addressed members of the Texas press Tuesday morning, placing blame for the situation at the Clint Border Patrol Station on his “friends on the other side of the aisle.”
Last week, Human Rights Watch lawyers found 255 children in deplorable conditions at the Clint Border Patrol Station outside of El Paso. 59 children were under the age of 12.
Representative Veronica Escobar, echoing the outrage and confusion of so many, posed the question, “Who will be held accountable for these atrocities?”
Hurd, who represents the 23rd district of Texas where the Clint Station sits, hasn’t personally visited the location – although members of his staff have.
He pointed out that the facility is “in essence no different than many of the other facilities on the border,” designed to hold a handful of people for a handful of hours, not hundreds of people for multiple days.
Hurd agreed that the Clint facility was over capacity, with not enough staff on hand. However, according to Hurd, there was baby formula and diapers on hand, as well as snacks and three meals a day.
Hurd, who is pushing Congress for a supplemental bill of 60 million to support border communities, said Tuesday that without Democrats placing additional funds with ICE or HHS, these issues will not be resolved.
“The reasons that you have problems with a facility that was not designed to do detention is because HHS (Health and Human Services) doesn’t have the capacity to take on additional kids. Clint and most facilities were not a detention facility – that is the broader problem,” said Hurd.
Additionally, Hurd pushed for faster deportations to keep holding centers from becoming overcrowded; stating, “people should be being deported within 21 days.”
As for the Clint station, Tuesday morning, a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) official shared that roughly 100 children were sent back to the Clint Border Patrol Station.
The official justified the action saying the initial movement of minors cleared the earlier reported overcrowding. The official echoed a similar sentiment as Hurd, mentioning unlimited snacks as proof of fine conditions.
Meanwhile, the confusion on the border continues.
Military-style tents at the West Texas Detention Center in Sierra Blanca and the Ysleta Border Patrol Station in El Paso house migrants.
It is unclear to those questioning the conditions of these tents who is being housed where – especially as the MPP (Remain in Mexico) program continues to send more and more individuals back to Mexico.
Author/Photographer: Jordyn Rozensky – El Paso Herald Post
On Friday, State Sen. José Rodríguez issued the following statement on the Governor’s decision to deploy an additional 1,000 Texas National Guard to the Texas-Mexico border:
Deploying more National Guard to the border is a fool’s errand and a waste of millions of taxpayer dollars, whether those dollars are federal or state. Neither the Texas National Guard nor DPS troopers who have been sent to the border have any enforcement authority when it comes to federal immigration laws.
This latest action will not help to alleviate the humanitarian crisis at our southern border. As has been well documented, the growing number of immigrants seeking asylum is primarily the result of people fleeing horrific violence and other atrocities in their countries of origin.
Instead of further militarizing our border communities, state leaders should allocate some of the $800 million appropriated by the Texas Legislature to provide resources to border communities like El Paso. In the absence of leadership both at the federal and state levels, our local communities have stepped up to care for these immigrants with basic decency and provide them with a modicum of dignity as they seek the opportunity for a safer, better life for their families. The taxpayer dollars that will be used to pay for the National Guard should instead be used to reimburse local governments and non-profits that have shouldered the burden of providing shelter, food, and coordinating transportation for asylum seekers.
The state should also focus on reimbursing cities like El Paso that use their local taxpayer dollars to pay for additional CBP agents at ports of entry. Increasing staffing at ports of entry and investing in infrastructure that will improve the movement of people and goods will do significantly more to improve border security than sending these troops, separating families, or building a wall.
José Rodríguez represents Texas Senate District 29, which includes the counties of El Paso, Hudspeth, Culberson, Jeff Davis, and Presidio. He represents both urban and rural constituencies, and more than 350 miles of the Texas-Mexico border. Senator Rodríguez currently serves as the Chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, and is a member of the Senate Committees on Agriculture (Vice Chair); Natural Resources and Economic Development; Transportation; and Water & Rural Affairs.
A group of 250 infants, children and teens has reportedly spent 27 days without adequate food, water and sanitation at a U.S. Border Patrol facility near El Paso, according to the Associated Press.
Several attorneys who visited the station said they found at least 15 children sick with the flu, some of whom were being kept in medical quarantine. They described seeing a sick and diaper-less 2-year-old boy whose “shirt was smeared in mucus.” Three girls, from the ages of 10 to 15, were taking turns watching him.
The allegedly dangerous and unsanitary conditions reported from inside the El Paso-area shelter are just some of the many accusations that have surfaced from detention facilities in recent months.
In June, the Office of Inspector General released a report detailing concerns about detainee treatment at four Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities across the country.
Inspectors found nooses in cells, expired food and inadequate medical care in California, New Jersey, Louisiana and Colorado.
“These are not independent, isolated incidents,” Fernando Garcia, the executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, told The Texas Tribune late Thursday. “These are part of a major strategy that is violating the rights of children and families.”
The University of Texas at El Paso’s Centennial Museum and Chihuahuan Desert Gardens will host an exhibit showcasing art created by teenagers from various Central and South American countries who were held in a secured tent city in Tornillo, a small town of about 1,600 people about 40 miles southeast of El Paso.
“Uncaged Art: Tornillo Children’s Detention Camp,” is a multi-sensory exhibit based on art that the teenagers created during their confinement.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services detained more than 6,000 teenagers from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and other Central and South American countries from June 2018 through January 2019 in the temporary detention center on the eastern fringe of El Paso County.
Among the witnesses who stood vigil outside the camp was Yolanda Chávez Leyva, Ph.D., associate professor of history and director of UTEP’s Institute of Oral History. She would go on her days off out of concern for the welfare of those unaccompanied minors in the camp.
Leyva said a camp source told her that social studies teachers assigned to the shelter gave a four-day art project that the children could do individually or in groups. The only instructions given to the detainees was to think of their home communities. She said the teenagers created hundreds of drawings, sketches, paintings, dresses and sculptures that involved birds, parks, churches and a soccer field.
Camp officials judged the art and decided which pieces to display around the camp.
When the government decided to close the site in January 2019, workers began to discard the artwork. A Catholic priest from El Paso who served the children asked the caretakers for a chance to find someone who might want the art. He called Leyva, a co-founder of El Paso’s Museo Urbano, a community museum near Downtown El Paso that researches and preserves borderland history.
Leyva said the priest hoped that the museum and UTEP might be able to protect the art. After consultation with Denis O’Hearn, Ph.D., dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Leyva agreed to store the artwork at UTEP.
“With our mission of access and excellence … and our mission to engage with our community on both sides of the border, we have created a sense of trust where people in the community feel that they can entrust us with their most valued objects,” he said. “This is something that other universities in the U.S. rarely have. It makes UTEP special and we cannot ever lose this.”
The exhibit sponsors are UTEP, the Centennial Museum, the Hope Border Institute, Museo Urbano, the renowned muralists Los Dos, and UTEP’s departments of Theatre & Dance and Facilities Management.
The show opens April 13, 2019, with a reception from 2 to 4 p.m. The exhibit closes October 5, 2019.
The tent city popped up over the summer, about 40 miles from El Paso, as the U.S. government sought more space to hold hundreds of unaccompanied teenagers caught crossing the Rio Grande from places like Honduras and Guatemala.
It was supposed to be a temporary solution, but a one-month contract to operate the camp stretched to two months, then three, then into the holidays as its population swelled.
After holding more than 6,000 immigrant teenagers over its seven-month lifespan, the controversial detention center — which drew a steady stream of protestors and fact-finding members of Congress who took tours and denounced what they saw — saw the last of its detainees leave last week. Many were placed with family members or other sponsors in the U.S. while others were sent to different facilities to continue their detention.
In this report, CityLab explores life inside Tornillo, its place in the history of American detention camps and what the place symbolized for the people who call that corner of West Texas home.
The immigration detention center for undocumented migrant youth at Tornillo, Texas will remain open into next year, the federal Health and Human Services agency confirmed Thursday.
The facility, which critics have called a “tent city” and sits on a remote port of entry in far West Texas, was opened in June to house mainly unaccompanied minors who crossed the border without parents or guardians. At that time the shelter operators were hopeful it would only be needed for a few weeks, but HHS has extended the contact with the shelter operator, Texas-based BCFS, several times since then.
The Associated Press first reported the news that the facility would remain open late Wednesday; an HHS spokesperson confirmed news of the extension to the Tribune Thursday morning.
“BCFS is continuing to work with us until all [unaccompanied alien children] are safely released to suitable sponsors or transferred to a permanent shelter,” HHS spokesman Mark Weber said in an email. “Our goal remains to close Tornillo as quickly but as safely as possible – for both the [unaccompanied alien children] and all the personnel who have worked faithfully for months providing excellent care for these vulnerable children.”
Weber added that the facility in Tornillo will not receive any more unaccompanied children and no one currently at the facility is there because of the earlier family separations policy, an enforcement initiative by the Trump administration that placed undocumented adult migrants in separate facilities from their children after they crossed the border. That policy ended in June. As of Nov. 30, BCFS had received just over $144 million from the government to run the facility.
On December 25, there were about 2,300 children at Tornillo, about 20 percent of whom were female, according to the most recent HHS fact sheet. Since the facility opened, about 6,200 children have been placed there and 3,900 have been released to relatives or sponsors.
News of the latest contact extension comes as lawmakers and immigrant rights groups made a last-minute push earlier this month to have the facility shuttered for good.
In June U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke and former El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar led a march of hundreds of protesters to decry the president’s immigration policies and demand more information about the Tornillo facility. In November, Escobar was elected to take over O’Rourke’s congressional seat.
At a smaller rally earlier this month, O’Rourke said it was incumbent on the immigrants’ advocates to keep a spotlight on the facility to ensure it closes as soon as possible.
In addition to the Tornillo facility, the HHS will expand capacity at a shelter in Homestead, Florida from 1,350 to 2,350.
It has been almost one year since my last column entry. I was on the campaign trail for these last midterm elections. Working on different campaigns led me to really get to know the people and communities of other areas of El Paso county that previously I had not visited as often, areas like San Elizario, Socorro, Fabens, Clint and Tornillo.
Now, with elections behind us, I was able to come home and the first place I wanted to visit was Tornillo. Since June, when the zero tolerance policy was passed and these children were separated from their parents, I – like many – have been looking for ways to get involved.
At first I tried calling the national numbers to see if I could get answers maybe we could organize a toy drive but I was constantly directed to dead ends, call this number, call that number etc…and every time no one had information for me. I decided to just head down to Tornillo and get answers for myself.
Driving up, I drove into the wrong area and was immediately greeted by agents. I heard them speaking in Spanish and honestly, that gave me a huge sense of relief. In my mind, I feel that at least the kids inside might have an ally, recognizing the language, our skin color?
Of course I could be completely wrong, but it did give me hope. The agents were nice and professional, they redirected me to where most people gather and also gave me a number for anyone that would like to seek more information. It was a number I recognized, the national D.C. number, one of the dead end calls I had already made. I thanked them for their time and headed towards the volunteer site.
I parked in an almost empty parking lot and immediately realized we were actually at the port of entry.
I have grown up my entire life in El Paso and am used to crossing the busy international bridge downtown, but this bridge was different, desolate, quiet. Had you not known, it just looks like you are entering one of the Eastside gated neighborhoods.
I introduce myself to the women I see sitting in folding chairs holding signs. They are quick to tell me to be careful if I step closer to the imaginary line in the sand I can be arrested. The agents have already warned them.
Cat Yuraka is the first women I meet, amazing woman who was/is part of Grannies Respond Caravan, an activist for Indivisible TX21 and member of the Resistance Choir, she has traveled from San Marcos area to spend the holiday in solidarity with the refugee children. I remembered following the “Grannies Respond” story while I was on the campaign trail, they were driving cross country to detention centers in protest of inhumane immigration policy.
I am so honored to meet her in person.
Everyone tells me the man I really need to speak to is the one who started the movement – Joshua Rubin – who was with other volunteers at the moment. While I am waiting for the main organizer to return I decide to finally turn and look at the detention center.
I had been hesitant about even looking at the building and I don’t even really know why but now the moment had come. I stare off into the distance and after a few minutes I saw them. Small children walking in a single file from one tent to the next. Immediately I feel the knot in my throat.
This is happening and it’s happening rightooutside my hometown.
Flooded with emotions I am immediately struck with sadness but then also with anger. WHY AREN’T WE ALL OUTRAGED.
Let me save anyone the time who wants to talk about the refugee parents and their decisions…that is not the discussion, I am talking about children, who are not adults.
It is at that moment the Joshua Rubin arrives and we are able to chat. He shares with me that he has been working with El Paso organizers to build a 24 hour long program for the next several days. They plan to stay on until Tornillo is shut down (hopefully soon.) I ask if there is anything I can do to help, donate money, clothes etc…he replies “we just need people to show up.”
The sun begins to set and the desert grows cold, as I making calls from my car I notice two new families arrive and set up chairs as they begin to sing carols in the dark.
I head back to Tornillo and am excited to see so many people out there! I say hello to everyone from the day before and begin to interview the new faces in the crowd.
Again, I found the majority of the people attending, traveled from out of town/state to be there. My heart is filled with gratitude.
The musical portion of the program begins with beautiful Indigenous sounds from Shaka Toki, someone begins to observe that every time the kids like a song the soccer balls in the detention field can be seen being kicked up in the air, a type of Morse code.
We all cheer back and again I feel the tears well up…they CAN hear us.
I sat near the gated fence where I could see them better, the wind carrying the muffled sounds of the children outside. At that moment the beautiful voice of Latina artist Diana Gameros takes the mic and she begins to sing Spanish Christmas Carols.
Almost immediately the soccer balls start flying, I am singing along reflecting on my own Christmas’ as a child at their age and fighting back the tears while watching them in the distance, through the chain linked barriers.
The energy throughout the day is something I personally have not experienced before. It’s a layered sentiment. This is inhumane treatment of children to be caged, removed from their parents and yet we are trying to bring a light of joy but my heart is breaking with every song. I think we all feel that way.
As the day is winding down, I meet two amazing young women, Raquel and Catherine, who drove all the way from Dallas to be here in Tornillo with the children. We become fast friends and it turns out they partnered with North Texas Dream Team and brought tons of blankets, jackets and clothes to deliver.
We start to make our way over to the drop off center.
At this location (which I will keep private to respect the safety of the people and workers there) we are greeted by volunteers and refugees who are excited to see us and help unload the donations. I promised to keep their identity safe so I will just say that it was identical to my experience helping the Cuban refugees.
Everyone there was kind and making the most of the donations they had, making their own small community within the facility. I tried to speak with some of the refugees but I am a stranger and I get the feeling people aren’t sure what to make of me just yet, understandable.
One woman I did speak with told me she fled Guatemala and walked the entire way to the United States; she then turned to the group and said something much more fluently in a different language. I realized that the apprehension to my Spanish was not solely because I am a stranger but also because their first language is an Indigenous dialect.
I could see all my questions were making them uneasy, I thanked her for her time and headed back to the main area to speak with the volunteers and ask how we, El Paso citizens, can help.
(spent Nochebuena with the women of the Brown Resistance at Tornillo and held a live interview with organizer Denise Benevides)
Nochebuena in Tornillo…The women of the brown resistance have arrived. It is 2am and we are out here for #Nochebuena in solidarity with the children being held in #Tornillo tent city. I spoke with organizer, Denise Benavides from Dallas***(s/o to ALL the amazing women from Dallas – my second home – making the drive out here 🙌🏾💙)
You know, I have had so many heated conversations over this topic within our Latinx community and all I know is that this is a multilayered subject.
From Cuban Refugees in El Paso who were granted amnesty automatically yet at the same time Mexican migrants who have worked here and contributed for decades, being rounded up and deported – to the DAPA/DACA/TPS stories – to the Mexican American experience through the border regions, born in the United States where many of our families never had to immigrate since this was all Mexico just 2-3 generations ago – to what is happening today, right outside our door.
Central American families fleeing violence and despair, children taken from their parents and kept in tents…I don’t know what the right answers are, what I do know is this: children are children and if these were your children, nieces/nephews you would do everything in your power to stop this.
What happens next? There is a process and Tornillo is set to shutdown soon, BUT does that mean that children will be moved to another facility?
There is much that is unknown, however what is known is the need for help – both in Tornillo and in the city.
You can also follow the volunteer facebook page setup to share updates: Witness Tornillo
For more information on how to help/donate/volunteer etc…the best place to contact is Annunciation House, we have a link in this story, as well as a list of suggested donations.
Please make time during this week – especially the next two days, Nochebuena and tomorrow Christmas Day – to head to Tornillo and join everyone in singing Christmas Carols to the children.
I want to thank Joshua Rubin, all the volunteers from across the country out in Tornillo and all the amazing El Paso organizers who are out there every day, dedicating their time trying to help end this.
On Wednesday, State Representative Mary E. González announced a Yarn Drive for children being detained in the Tornillo Shelter.
“Many constituents, as well as people from across the country, have reached out to my office asking how to help the young people held at the Tornillo detention center, especially around the holidays,” said Rep. González. “This yarn drive is a small but meaningful way to help those kids in need.”
Rep. González’s goal is to collect 1,200 spools of yarn by the end of December.
“As a community, we must ensure that we are doing everything we can to help the youngest and most vulnerable among us,” Rep. González said. “If you are able to donate to the drive, it will truly brighten the day of kids who are in detention in Tornillo.”
Community members interested in donating yarn to children being detained in the Tornillo Shelter can contact Joshua Carter Guerra, District Director, at (915) 851-6632, or via email at Joshua.email@example.com
The link to the Amazon Gift Registry for this drive can also be found here.
With the migrant children’s camp just outside of Tornillo still holding scores of kids, and the approach of the holidays, State Senator José Rodríguez is working with officials to make their time there a bit brighter.
As many from the community have asked how they can help, Rodríguez and his office are coordinating a “Gifts for Good” drive for the youth in the Tornillo detention center, which currently holds 2,400 children.
“The holidays are a time of the year where most people enjoy spending time with their families. These youth have been away from their families for who knows how long. We hope these gifts bring some holiday cheer,” said Rodríguez.
According to a news release from Senator Rodríguez’s office adds”the children are not allowed visitors, gifts of any kind, or even hugs.”
However, for this holiday season, the Rodríguez has received permission to provide a gift of a soccer ball. Join the Senator’s office to bring a smile to a child by ordering from a pre-selected wish list of soccer balls, which can be found via this link.
Officials say there is no limit to the number of gifts that a person can sponsor.
All gifts must be shipped to the District Office, which is at 100 North Ochoa Street, Suite A, El Paso, TX 79901, by December 13, 2018.
With just weeks before a federal contract to operate a West Texas detention center for undocumented immigrant minors is set to expire, there is still no word whether the Trump administration plans to keep the site open into 2019.
But the shelter operators maintain that another contract extension would be just one more short-term solution to a larger problem that needs a permanent fix.
The contract between the federal Health and Human Services’ Offices of Refugee Resettlement and San Antonio nonprofit BCFS to operate the controversial detention camp at Tornillo is due to expire at the end of this month after being extended several times since theoriginal 30-day contract in June.
“The ball is in their court,” said BCFS spokeswoman Evy Ramos. “We have said to them just recently this week, we can’t just keep extending this, this is not a permanent solution. Something else has to be figured out.”
The facility — a collection of dozens of military-grade tents on the grounds of a federal port of entry surrounded by acres of farmland — has swelled from a few hundred immigrants in June to about 2,300. Its capacity was expanded to about 3,800 after the administration realized the flow of unauthorized minors seeking asylum in the United States did not dwindle despite efforts to deter asylum seekers by turning them away at the international ports of entry and urging the Mexican government to block Central Americans from traveling through that country.
If the government didn’t extend the contract for Tornillo, it would have to build or find another facility that’s designed for long-term detention, Ramos said. But that decision is ultimately up to ORR officials. She said the company, which as of Nov. 30 had received just over $144 million from the government to run the facility, doesn’t know what the government plans to do. But it “will not just abandon the children in Tornillo,” Ramos said.
HHS spokesman Mark Weber said late Wednesday that children in the agency’s care would continue to be “provided critical services in a safe and compassionate matter,” no matter where they are placed.
“Just like we have in the past, we will make a public announcement when/if operation at Tornillo are extended,” he said.
Ramos isn’t the first BCFS employee to question the Trump administration’s handling of undocumented immigrant children. In June, the incident commander at the facility said the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy — which resulted in thousands of immigrant children being separated from their parents — was a mistake that prompted building the makeshift shelter in Tornillo. The president ended the policy about two months after it was initiated after a public outcry over the family separations.
“It was an incredibly dumb, stupid decision,” the incident commander said at the time, adding that he hoped to never again conduct a similar operation. He added that he thought the facility wouldn’t be needed past the middle of July, when the first contract was set to expire.
That was almost six months ago.
When the facility first opened, a small number of children at the facility had been separated from their parents under zero tolerance. Ramos said Wednesday that all the children currently in the facility are minors who arrived to the country without a parent or guardian, and the large majority are from Central America.
Tornillo holds youths age 17 or younger. Before they can be released to a U.S. sponsor, those adults need to be vetted. Ramos said that process has slowed considerably since the summer, when minors were released after only a few weeks in the facility.
“I support the fact that they need to do fingerprinting and background checks on every adult in the [sponsor’s] home in order to ensure the safety of the children,” she said. “It’s just the speed at which they’re doing it, it’s just taking too long.”
Last week,a report from the Office of the Inspector General confirmed media reports that employees at the facility did not undergo FBI background checks. The issue was first reported by VICE News last month.
Ramos said that at BCFS’s long-term care facilities that are licensed by the state, access to the FBI database is allowed because the state acts as BCFS’s government sponsor. But because Tornillo is a federal project on federal land, that access hasn’t been granted.
“We’re wondering why ORR couldn’t have been our sponsoring agency in order to be able to process those FBI fingerprint background checks,” she said. “It’s not that we don’t want to, or wanted to go around it. We could not do it.”
After the OIG report was released, U.S. Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif. and Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., called for HHS and the Department of Homeland Security to immediately close the facility.
“It is clear the administration’s actions are putting thousands of children in danger,” they wrote to HHS Secretary Alex Azar.
Weber said the Office of Refugee Resettlement is working with the FBI and Texas Department of Public Safety “to conduct FBI fingerprint background checks as quickly as possible for current and future employees at Tornillo.” He added that BCFS has conducted other pre-employment background checks, including standard state felony and misdemeanor checks and multi-state sex offender registry checks.
REYNOSA, Mexico — It was the third time Ingrid had tried to make it across an international bridge into Texas.
The first time, she said, Mexican officials stopped her on the bridge into Laredo and demanded that she pay $1,500 for her and her two children to cross into the United States, where she planned to seek asylum.
A few weeks later, they barred Ingrid — a Mexican permanent resident born in Guatemala, with Mexican-born children — from passing the turnstiles to cross the bridge into Hidalgo, threatening to deport her and rip up her documents.
And on Tuesday, a Mexican officer in a beige uniform sprinted after Ingrid as she walked past the turnstile and up to the midpoint of that same bridge, which spans two nations grappling with their own influx of Central American migrants.
“Can I see your documents?” the officer, Alejandro Vargas, asked Ingrid, maneuvering his body in front of her. “I need to see your documents. It’s the orders from my boss.”
Ingrid, who declined to give her last name to protect her safety, said Mexican authorities later told her that if she attempted to cross the border again, her Mexican residency would be stripped and she would be deported to Guatemala.
It’s a move immigration lawyers say is becoming increasingly common along Mexico’s northern border following months of shifting U.S. immigration enforcement strategies that have prevented some migrants like Ingrid from entering the United States to seek asylum. This time, it’s Mexican officials who are cracking down.
Earlier this year, U.S. officials started turning migrants away before they could even reach the U.S. side of the bridge, telling them ports of entry were full. On one bridge, U.S. Customs and Border Protection even erected a physical structure on the invisible line between the two countries. But after asylum-seekers started camping out on the Mexican side of the bridges — sometimes sleeping on cardboard for days at a time — Mexican officials began blocking Central American migrants from entering those bridges at all.
“Before, if someone was illegally on the border, and there was a suspicion that they were going to leave the country, [Mexican immigration officials] would turn a blind eye,” said Isauro Rodríguez, an immigration lawyer based in Reynosa. “Now, they’re actually clamping down as hard as they do in other parts of Mexico.”
Advocates and lawyers on both sides of the border have various theories as to why Mexican officials are suddenly cracking down on asylum-seekers. Some believe the Mexican government is trying to save face politically, as U.S. officials question why Mexico isn’t doing more to stem the northern flow. Others argue Mexican immigration authorities are under the thumb of cartels, which want to force migrants into costly smuggling rings.
Rochelle Garza, a lawyer based in Brownsville, has filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights asking for Ingrid and a dozen others in similar situations to be allowed to cross international bridges to seek asylum. The migrants have a right to leave Mexico and the right to seek asylum in the United States, she said, and neither country is cooperating.
Mexican migration officials declined to comment for this story.
But Hector Hugo Alemán Pacheco, an official with Mexico’s National Institute of Migration, said in a letter responding to inquiries from lawyers that allowing immigrants free entry across the bridge into the United States would mean telling Mexican migration authorities to ignore their mandated responsibilities.
“Individuals who enter or exit national territory must do so complying with immigration law and its regulations,” he said, “with intervention from migration officials.”
The petition Garza filed with the human rights commission accuses U.S. officials of asking their Mexican counterparts to ramp up enforcement. An affidavit signed by Jennifer Harbury, a Mercedes-based lawyer who accompanied Ingrid onto the Hidalgo bridge twice, said she was told by Mexican officials that the U.S. Border Patrol had instructed them to apprehend migrants. She said in some instances, Central American asylum-seekers reached the midpoint of bridges, only to be stopped by U.S. officials and told to sit down on the Mexican side. Then, Mexican officials would arrive to question the migrants.
A spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection declined to comment for this story, instead pointing to previous statements that say the agency is “not denying or discouraging” migrants from seeking asylum: “Depending upon port circumstances at the time of arrival, individuals presenting without documents may need to wait in Mexico as CBP officers work to process those already within our facilities.”
The increased immigration enforcement by Mexico means it’s becoming increasingly difficult for asylum-seekers like Ingrid to ask for asylum the “right” way — by crossing into the United States at an official port of entry.
She could stay on the Mexican side of bridge, hoping for another chance to cross. But Mexican officials could apprehend her for loitering in a federally controlled area.
She could pay a smuggler to take her across the Rio Grande illegally. But Ingrid doesn’t have the money.
It’s even riskier for migrants who — unlike Ingrid — are in Mexico illegally and could be deported at any time. Rodriguez, the Reynosa lawyer, said while migrants can theoretically appear before a Mexican judge to ask for an amparo, a kind of temporary reprieve from deportation, costly legal fees prevent them from doing it.
“What other choice do these individuals have if they’re being forced back into Mexico, where they’re being picked up by cartel members, where they’re being extorted?” asked Garza, the Brownsville lawyer.
Editor’s note: The Texas Tribune and TIME have partnered to closely track the family separation crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. This story is not available for republishing by a national news organization until Oct. 12 at 6 a.m. Texas news organizations may run it at any time. For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The immigration detention center at Tornillo used to hold undocumented immigrant minors will remain open through the end of the year, a government spokesperson said Tuesday.
The decision marks the third time the facility’s operations have been extended since it opened in June.
It’s necessary because of the ongoing arrival of unaccompanied immigrant minors in the United States, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said in an email. The extension is not in response to President Donald Trump’s former “zero tolerance” policy that separated children from their parents or guardians, which has been placed on hold after a national uproar.
The facility will also expand to 3,800 beds, spokesperson Kenneth Wolfe said. Earlier this summer, the facility reportedly had around 400 beds.
“These temporary beds will be brought online incrementally as needed. We will continue to assess the need for this temporary shelter at Tornillo Land Port of Entry in Tornillo, Texas, based on the projected need for beds and current capacity of the program,” Wolfe said.
The facility, which critics have called a “tent city,” was opened after the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy. It has mainly housed undocumented immigrant children who came to the country on their own, though there have been some separated minors detained there. Wolfe said that San Antonio-based BCFS Health and Human Services will continue operating the facility.
Critics decried the decision to keep it open and expand capacity.
“This administration has resorted to putting kids in tents rather than pushing for comprehensive immigration reform while Congress sits complicit with inaction,” said state Rep. César Blanco, D-El Paso, who called on Texas Republicans in Congress to “show courage” and be more vocal on the issue. “It’s immoral and un American.”
Last month, the facility held 170 undocumented minors, the majority from Central America. The increase of thousands more beds means the Trump administration is likely preparing for the prolonged detention of more minors, state Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-Clint, told the Tribune.
Immigrant rights groups have asserted all year that the administration has created unnecessary barriers for families or sponsors willing to take in the unaccompanied minors. After the family separation crisis, critics complained that some families were made to undergo more vetting than others.
“It is a result of the policy the administration has implemented, for example the stricter rules when it comes to connecting children to family members once they’re here,” Gonzalez, whose district includes Tornillo, said. “It’s created a backlog and people getting stuck in it.”
The administration also announced last week plans to circumvent current legal settlement that mandates minor children cannot be detained for more than 20 days. The agreement, reached in 1997 and called the Flores agreement, is a magnet that encourages illegal crossings, the administration has said.
Customs and Border Patrol statistics show the number of unaccompanied minor apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol has decreased over the summer months. In July about 3,900 unaccompanied minors were apprehended or turned themselves in on the country’s southwest border. That’s a dip from about 5,100 in June and about 6,380 in May.
Statistics for August haven’t been released, but a spokesperson in the Rio Grande Valley said the past few weeks have been a busy one for that Border Patrol sector, which is historically the most active in the country. On Tuesday morning, agents in the sector apprehended 131 undocumented immigrants in two separate instances within 24 hours, including 45 family units and 21 unaccompanied children, a spokesperson said.
TORNILLO — The tent city erected at this port of entry near El Paso was quickly built and opened less than two weeks ago to house undocumented immigrant children. On Monday, its operator said it may not keep operating after July 13, when its federal contract expires.
The incident commander for BCFS Health and Human Services, which operates the facility, said he doesn’t yet see a need to extend operations beyond that date because he doesn’t the arrival of many more minors.But a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services told reporters during a tour of the facility that the government could ask to extend the contract — and even expand the facility if needed.
“The federal government will make a decision [later] about future needs,” said HHS spokesman Mark Weber.
HHS and BCFS officials gave about two dozen reporters a tour of the controversial facility, although they did not allow photography or audio recordings and interactions with the children were limited to greetings.
As of Monday morning, the facility housed 326 minors including 162 from Guatemala, 117 from Honduras, 40 from El Salvador, three from Mexico and four from countries simply classified as “other.” About two dozen children who were separated from their families at the border have arrived at the facility, and officials said three of those children have so far have been reunified with family members. Another 67 of the unaccompanied minors who arrived alone have been reunited since arriving at the facility.
Reporters were given a briefing on the facility’s operations inside a mobile command unit, where about 12 BCFS staffers monitored the facility through cameras and computer screens, kept a daily track of visitors and updated a daily tally of the facility’s population. The BCFS incident commander, who asked not to be identified by name, said security was essential due to the number of elected officials and media who had descended on the facility.
The rest of the sprawling facility, constructed in just three days, consisted of about 20 tents that act as dormitories. Each unit, with names like Alpha 10, has 10 bunk beds equipped to handle 20 minors at a time. Drawings and pages from coloring books could be seen tacked to some of the walls, many containing Bible verses, and a daily schedule dictating everything from laundry to lunch was taped to a table at the dorm entrances.
When one group is waiting in line to use the showers, another is taking its turn at the phone stations. And before it gets too hot, some of the minors are allowed to play soccer on a makeshift field that sits just south of the dormitories. Every unit is air conditioned and Weber said there have been no complaints about the heat.
The BCFS official said the operation is staffed by about 250 people, including translators, medical staff and counselors that help the children make calls to family members. He said it resembles a boot camp because it’s the easiest way to keep order.
He had scathing words for the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” mandate that resulted in the separation of thousands of minor children from their parents after they were apprehended or surrendered themselves at the border.
“It was an incredibly dumb, stupid decision,” he said, adding several times he hopes to never again conduct an operation like this one.
Meanwhile, Weber pushed back against claims that HHS and the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s process to reunite parents with their children has been chaotic so far. Several legal aid providers have criticized the process, saying it consists of little more than a 1-800 number that parents of other advocates can call to get information on where their children are.
“We know where the parents are, we are working as fast as we can” to get them in touch with their children, Weber said.
He said a some anecdotal stories about parents unable to locate their children isn’t the reality for most families. He said the process also includes verifying that a person is authorized to accept the child, and that takes time.
“We need to verify documentation [because] we don’t want to release a child too soon. It takes time.”