Aerial view of the tent city at the Marcelino Serna Port of Entry in Tornillo on Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018. The shelter opened in June and has grown approximately 10 times in size, compared to file photos. Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texa
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 the original 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.