EL PASO — After more than six months of serving as a symbol of President Trump’s hardline immigration policies, the detention center for young migrants at Tornillo is on the brink of closing for good.
“We expect the vast majority of [unaccompanied alien children] currently at Tornillo to be released to a suitable sponsor by the end of the month,” said Mark Weber, spokesperson for the federal Health and Human Services agency, which oversees the care and detention of undocumented minor children. “If a suitable sponsor has not been identified for [unaccompanied minors] by the time operations at Tornillo conclude, the [immigrant] will be transferred to an appropriate shelter in the [Office of Refugee Resettlement] network.”
The facility near El Paso opened in June to house mainly unaccompanied minors who crossed the border without parents or guardians. Critics decried the facility as a “tent city” after it was hastily erected, and its construction led to several protests organized by elected officials. At one time it held more than 2,500 undocumented minor immigrants who crossed the border seeking asylum.
On Tuesday, HHS said the population at the facility was down to about 850 children and its goal was to “to close Tornillo as quickly but as safely as possible – for both the [immigrants] and all the personnel who have worked faithfully for months providing excellent care for these vulnerable children” Weber said.
The closure was first reported by VICE news, which also reported that as recently as last week, the facility still held 1,500 unaccompanied minors. The outlet also published photographs of the facility’s tents being dismantled.
News of the facility’s potential shuttering comes after the contract between HHS and Texas-based BCFS Health and Human Services to operate the center was extended several times since last summer. In June, BCFS officials said they were hopeful that the Tornillo facility would only be needed for a few weeks, but the federal agency extended the contract after the number of migrant children crossing the border remained steady or increased during the last half of 2018.
On Tuesday, a BCFS official said the company’s goal was in line with HHS’s timeline and the company hoped to have the facility empty by the middle of the month and completely closed by Jan. 31.
Weber said in his emailed statement that circumstances beyond HHS’s control could determine whether the migrants still at Tornillo are able to be united with sponsors already living in the United States.
“There are all sorts of factors that come into play that impact our ability to transfer or release [unaccompanied minors] to suitable sponsors … ranging from cancelled airplane flights because of weather (happens all the time) to scheduling a home visit when needed,” he said.
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.
Department of Health and Human Services Officials told U.S. Congressmen Democrats Beto O’Rourke and other members of the House and Senate that seven girls, between the ages of 13 to 17 years old, are currently at the tent shelter at the Tornillo Port of Entry.
The teen girls, who are from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, attempted to cross into the country illegally with their parents; were separated from the boys. A total of 200 children were at the shelter O’Rourke said.
A total of 23 children were said to be separated O’Rourke said, and HHS official told them. And while the situation was not ideal, the children, he said, seemed to be in “good spirits.”
That being said, O’Rourke stressed that the group asked the children how long they had been there and where they came from, and whether they had come with their parents or not. Some had confirmed that they crossed with their parents, and others said they had come alone.
“Some said they had been here one month, two months and up to three months,” O’Rourke told the press during a conference following his visit to the shelter. “We were told that seven girls had been brought in today.”
Additional Congressmen that joined O’Rourke included U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, San Antonio, Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, Stephanie Murphy D-Florida; Kathleen Rice, D and Tom Suozzi of New York and Republican U.S. Rep Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and Mike Coffman, Colorado and Roger Marshall of Kansas during their visit earlier today to the shelter.
Udall said while he was not worried about the conditions of the camp, he was worried about heading into another humanitarian crisis.
“The separation of children from their families and from their moms and dads has ended up being a disaster and we didn’t plan for it. We didn’t have a real organization in place to accomplish things and get it down. I think it’s really clear here that you don’t just sign an executive order to get things done.”
Officials told the group that the children are allowed two 10-minute phone calls a week to their parents or family, and they have showers in the facilities as well as a means to tend to their medical needs.
However, when the U.S. Representatives asked questions regarding the location of the children, they were not given direct answers.
Instead, Castro and O’Rourke said they were told by HHS officials that it was not their job; or they were unsure.
“We did not get a clear answer of which facility are holding the young women and girls and that’s disturbing.”
Three Central Americans detained after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border to seek asylum are suing the federal government over its now-reversed policy of separating them from their young children.
The lawsuit, filed by lawyers with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid on Wednesday, argues the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant youth from their parents — which the president pulled back on Wednesday under intense national pressure — was “designed, intended and administered as a means of deterring all immigration, even legal immigration by those with a right to seek asylum.” The parents are asking the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to reunite them with their children and rule that the U.S. government violated their constitutional rights.
“This is punishment, it interferes with family integrity, and it interferes with access to courts, all of which our Constitution’s Fifth Amendment does not allow,” the lawsuit states. “Families naturally experience forced separation as torture and they urge this Court to stop it.”
The parents suing the federal government are from Guatemala and Honduras and are housed in three different immigration detention centers throughout Texas — the El Paso Processing Center, the Port Isabel Service Processing Center in Los Fresnos and the South Texas Family Residential Center near Dilley. The three parents had a total of five children separated from them after crossing the border; the kids range in age from 2 to 13.
It’s unclear whether or how the children will be united with their parents in light of Trump’s Wednesday announcement.
Early in the afternoon, the president signed an executive order reversing procedures that have sent more than 2,000 immigrant children to facilities separate from their parents. His “zero tolerance” immigration policy — which asserts that all adult immigrants caught crossing the border will be prosecuted — will remain in place, and it’s still unclear how families will be kept intact without sending kids to jail alongside their parents.
“We hope that the children are reunited with their parents at the soonest possible time,” said Jerome Wesevich, an attorney representing the plaintiffs. “Every minute that passes is intense anguish for these parents and their kids.”
The U.S. Department of Justice didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
U.S. officials previously determined that one of the families in the lawsuit — a Guatemalan mother with three children, including a 2-year-old — had a credible fear of returning to their home country. Though the family sought asylum at a port of entry — the way the system is designed to work — the children were sent to New York while the mother stayed detained in Texas, according to the lawsuit.
The mother has not seen her children for more than a month. While she is occasionally allowed to talk to them on the phone, she has only heard her 2-year-old’s voice through cries, the lawsuit states.
The other two parents in the lawsuit do not know where their children are, how to contact them or how they will be reunited.
One of those parents, a Honduran man, was separated from his 12-year-old daughter after crossing the southern Texas border in Cameron County earlier this month, according to the complaint. He approached officials and said he was seeking asylum and had left Honduras after being shot in the shoulder and receiving death threats.
Shortly after arriving at the processing center in Brownsville, his daughter was taken to another room, and he was later informed they would be separated indefinitely, according to the complaint.
Another Guatemalan woman who’d been threatened in her home country had her 9-year-old son taken away from her after crossing the border near Presidio and approaching immigration officials at a nearby port of entry, the lawsuit states. The two were separated the next day, without being told why.
Those two parents were criminally convicted for entering the country illegally — i.e. not at the port of entry. They’re the type of border-crossers targeted by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, and they continue to be detained as they pursue asylum claims.
The Guatemalan mother of three who sought asylum at the port of entry should not have been separated from her children under the policy, according to Department of Homeland Security rules. Families that bring asylum claims legally at ports of entry can only separated if officials believe they aren’t actually related, if they worry the children are unsafe with the parents or if the adult is referred for criminal prosecution. It’s unclear if any of those conditions applied in this case.
When the mother’s children were sent to a facility in New York, immigration officials told her she would be detained in Texas because a judge needed to talk to her. She was told they would only be apart for a week at most. That was a month ago.
WASHINGTON — Republicans in Congress appear closer to reaching a compromise on immigration — and ending family separations at the Texas-Mexico border — after a closed-door meeting with President Donald Trump Tuesday evening.
Trump, who has repeatedly blamed Congress for his administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, encouraged House Republicans to pass a modified version of a compromise bill Republican leaders introduced last week. That updated version would include a provision that would keep immigrant families together as they await court hearings, according to lawmakers who attended the meeting Tuesday.
For days, photos of detained immigrant children have streamed out of South and West Texas, upending the workflow in Washington in a way not seen since the travel ban early in the Trump administration. Despite growing Republican criticism out of the Senate — including from Texas’ two GOP senators — White Houseofficials have dug in on their policy of separating immigrant children from their parents.
“The answer to this current situation is a solution that allows us to both enforce the law and keep families together,” U.S. Sen. John Cornyn said Tuesday on the Senate floor. “They don’t have to be mutually exclusive.”
He said he agreed with former first lady Laura Bush that there should be “a better answer.” Bush is among a chorus of voices of criticizing the policy — a group that includes the other living first ladies. Cornyn has said in recent days that he intends to introduce legislation that will keep families together and expedite hearings.
On Tuesday evening, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruzintroduced emergency legislation that would marshal more resources to the border to expedite the legal process for immigrants seeking asylum and create facilities that would allow parents to stay with their children. Earlier Tuesday, he confirmed a report from The Washington Post that he was working together with Cornyn on a bill that could be filed later in the day. Cornyn was not listed among the co-sponsors of the bill, but a spokesperson told the Tribune that the two senators are still working together.
Asked about working with Cruz on the legislation, Cornyn said the bill Cruz has been working seems to contain the elements “of a consensus approach” and said he aims to work with Democrats on a bipartisan solution. At a press conference later in the day, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stood next to Cornyn as he said “all of the members of the Republican conference support a plan that keeps families together while their immigration status is determined.” He said Republicans hope to reach out to Democrats to “see if we can get a result.”
But in a speech Tuesday afternoon, Trump appeared to shoot down at least an element of Cruz’s proposed emergency bill — an idea to double the number immigration judges from roughly 375 to 750.
“We have to have a real border, not judges,” Trump said, adding that some judges might be corrupt.
Immigration is poised to dominate congressional action this week, as the House is set to pick up two Republican pieces of related legislation on Thursday. Those bills — both of which face uphill battles in the House and the Senate — will address Trump’s long-sought border wall and what to do with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an Obama-era immigration measure that protects hundreds of thousands of young undocumentedimmigrants from deportation.
The more moderate bill, which provides a conditional pathway to citizenship for certain qualifying undocumented youth and addresses the family separation issue, got a boost Tuesday after Trump told lawmakers he supported the proposal.
The President’s remarks appear to have convinced a number of Republicans who were previously leaning toward a more conservative bill authored by Texan U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul of Tomball and Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia.
Several Texas Republicans exiting the meeting Tuesday voiced support for the compromise bill and optimism that it would garner the 218 votes it needs to pass.
“No one is stronger or tougher on border security than President Trump, and he strongly endorsed this common-ground bill because it is an America-first bill — it’s border security first, reforming the broken visa system, and then — and only then — is there a path to legal status for those who’ve earned the merit to stay here,” U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady of The Woodlands said in an interview. “He made it clear he’s behind this bill 1,000 percent.”
Brady said Trump endorsed provisions in the bill that addressed the family separation question. Specifically, those measures would allow families to stay together as they undergo immigration proceedings and would allocate $7 billion in federal funds for family detention centers.
Brady said those provisions “drew strong support” from House Republicans in the room.
U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, said she will vote for the compromise bill. “It will keep the families together,” she said.
The controversy over the family separation policy has fully consumed regular business at the Capitol.
The outcry is so widespread on Capitol Hill that it worked its way into a high-profile Tuesday morning committee hearing on the FBI’s actions in the 2016 Clinton email investigation. House Democrats veered off topic during the hearing to decry the policy as Republicans grumbled “Out of Order!”
The images of crying children at the border are beginning to spook Republican political consultants, who fear they could impact the GOP’s chances of holding the lower chamber after this fall’s midterm election. At the same time, it was only one week ago that U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-South Carolina, lost his primary. President Donald Trump specifically targeted him for past critical comments and reinforced the fears many Texas Republicans and their advisers of crossing the president.
The calls against Trump from that chamber remained largely muted in recent days, and when the The Texas Tribune surveyed the Texas delegation Monday, many Texas Republicans avoided commenting on the matter.
Trump’s endorsement of the compromise bill Tuesday evening seems to have provided political cover for vulnerable Republicans to get behind the legislation and speak out about the family separations.
U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, who is facing a tough re-election fight, said he was “very encouraged” by the meeting.
“It’s got all the right elements that we need to secure the border, to make sure we’re taking care of the DACA problem, to make sure that the families aren’t separated,” he said.
But the Tuesday meeting did not convince everyone. U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, is among the holdouts still supporting the Goodlatte-McCaul bill.
“I’m going to support the Goodlatte bill. There are a lot of commonalities between the bills,” he said. “I think the key difference is what would be no pathway to citizenship versus a green card.”
U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Midland, said Republicans were still trying to whip up the votes Tuesday evening to pass the compromise measure and that it is unclear when that bill will come up for a vote. The House will likely vote on the more conservative Goodlatte-McCaul bill Thursday.
Texas’ Republican House Speaker Joe Straus asked President Donald Trump on Tuesday to rescind the “zero tolerance” policy of his administration that has led to thousands of immigrant children being separated from their parents at the border.
“I know that members of Congress from both parties have proposed various ways to address this issue in the form of legislation, and while I applaud their attention to the problem, I also know that congressional action often does not come quickly,” the speaker told Trump in a letter. “In order to at least begin addressing this issue, there is no need to wait for Congress to act. That’s why I respectfully ask that you move immediately to rescind the policy that [Attorney] General [Jeff] Sessions announced in April and any other policies that have led to an increase in family separations at the border.”
In the letter, Straus also rejected arguments by the Trump administration that the policy could be used as leverage against Democrats in Congress. “It is wrong to use these scared, vulnerable children as a negotiating tool,” Straus wrote.
The speaker, who is retiring early next year, continued: “Please listen to the growing number of Americans, faith leaders and elected officials from both parties who are voicing our concerns about this growing crisis. This is not a binary choice between rampant crime and tearing families apart.”
Straus has emerged as one of the most vocal critics of the policy among Texas Republicans, along with U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes. Outgoing state Rep. Jason Villalba has also made clear his opposition to the policy, writing a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott, also a Republican, on Tuesday imploring him to “hear the cry of the little ones at our border who have been torn from their loving mothers and fathers.”