The Tornillo camp originally had a capacity to house 400 children temporarily, now it has 2,400 beds and will remain open at least until the end of the year
t was meant to be small and temporary. But the precise rows of US government tents by the lonely border crossing just a few feet from Mexico keep multiplying. The detention camp for migrant children in the south-west desert at Tornillo, Texas, not only remains in place weeks after it was expected to shut down, but is expanding fast.
Children are being brought by the busload and kept here on this remote patch of federal land surrounded by scrub and pecan nut farms. Hidden from public view on the ground, its proliferation is clearly visible from the air.
The camp sprouted up four months ago in the midst of Donald Trump’s crackdown on unauthorized border crossings and immigration, starting with about two dozen neat, brown tents and one or two larger, white communal tents.
It came to wider attention when the administration escalated the practice of tearing families apart and detaining adults and children separately, after the government’s “zero tolerance” declaration in May on unlawful immigration. A small number of those children at the time were expected to end up at Tornillo, alongside teenagers already there who had been apprehended after crossing the border alone.
Seen from a small aircraft on Sunday morning, it was clear the camp has expanded exponentially from when the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) opened it in June and initially said it would operate for a few weeks, which turned into three months. About 100 uniform brown tents are now visible and several more of the larger, white utility tents.
The camp is next to the Marcelino Serna port of entry between the US and Mexico, on Department of Homeland Security (DHS) land 20 miles south-east of El Paso in west Texas. It is being used to accommodate more and more of the surging numbers of children being held by the government, despite rising opposition.
“We’re causing irreparable harm to thousands of children and I think it’s deplorable, despicable, inhumane and un-American and we need to put a stop to it,” said David Stout, a member of the El Paso county commissioners court.
On this pleasant sunny morning there was no sign from above in the barren outdoor spaces of the 2,000-plus children believed to be detained at the fenced-in camp with air-conditioned tents. Limited access for some reporters and politicians back in the early summer yielded reports of kids playing soccer in the dust and scorching temperatures.
According to recent HHS statistics released to Congress and some media outlets, HHS now has in its custody across the country 12,800 undocumented minors – a fivefold increase in the span of 16 months.
The Tornillo camp was previously contracted to operate until the end of August, then extended to the end of September, and now will remain open until the end of the year, with the potential to expand its capacity further if needed.
When it first opened, the facility had a capacity to house 400 children. It has since grown to 2,400 beds and a further 1,400 beds will be placed on reserve status in case the number of minors being held in detention continues to rise, HHS said, while declining to answer questions regarding the exact number of detainees there now.
“The need for the continuation of the operation at Tornillo is based on the number of unaccompanied children in the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement at HHS Administration for Children and Families, who crossed the border alone without their parent or legal guardian,” an HHS spokesman, Kenneth Wolfe, told the Guardian. He added: “‘Family separations’ resulting from the zero-tolerance policy ended on June 20, 2018, and are not driving this need.”
It is currently being operated by BCFS, a Texas-based not-for-profit organization, which has been running the facility under short-term contracts.
“In these facilities, we’re basically incarcerating children. We are taking these children, who really have no fault of their own in what their situation is right now, but we’re putting them into a more precarious situation,” said Stout.
Texas state senator José Rodríguezwas given a restricted tour of the facility in July.
“This has continued for too long and frankly, I don’t find the federal government to be reliable in terms of having a plan to close the facility. I wouldn’t be surprised if at the end of December they extend the contract again,” Rodríguez said.
Immigrant advocacy groups say a memorandum of understanding between DHS and HHS, signed in April, is slowing down the release of the minors from federal custody because of new restrictions on sponsors – typically a relative or family friend already living in the US may agree to act as a guardian to an unaccompanied minor crossing the border.
The new procedure requires potential sponsors for the children to submit to fingerprinting of all the adults in the household. Opponents say that acts as a deterrent for sponsors, who may fear the authorities.
“It’s absurd. More and more children are being detained by Ice [Immigration and Customs Enforcement],” said Fernando Garcia, executive director of Border Network for Human Rights, an El Paso-based advocacy organization. “Ice’s [previous]unwillingness to reunite the children, combined with the hardline immigration enforcement, has resulted in this new crisis.”
Last month it was reported that Ice had arrested 41 individuals who came forward as potential sponsors for undocumented migrant children between July and September. And the White House announced plans to sidestep the Flores settlement, a 20-year old agreement which limits the time the federal government can detain immigrant minors to not more than 20 days. According to federal data, the average detention length has risen from 40 to 59 days.
Garcia compared the Tornillo facility to the internment camps for Japanese Americans in the US during the second world war and says it is a government tactic to “dehumanize immigrants”.
“Unfortunately the attitude towards these migrants has been one of painting them as criminals and a threat to society. That represents a problem because with that you can justify having them in prisons, you justify building walls,” he said.
Indeed, earlier this week, the New York Times reported that, as shelters and foster accommodation across the US fill to bursting with children apprehended and detained after crossing the border alone, many are being taken by surprise at dead of night and moved to the Tornillo camp.
Border Network and numerous other advocacy groups, as well as politicians, have had more recent requests to tour the Tornillo camp and check on resources for the children ignored or denied.
“It’s a shame because it shows neglect and lack of transparency at a time when civil oversight is needed the most,” Garcia said.
Texas Monthly reported that a source with knowledge of the financial aspects of the camp said it will cost approximately $100m a month to operate the facility when it reaches 3,800 beds.
“What a tragic misuse of federal funding. Imagine the good that money could do in border communities, for example, on enhancing the ports of entry to support the billions of dollars in trade between the US and Mexico. The money spent does nothing to keep us safer, and diverts resources from investments that could expand prosperity in Texas and the US,” Senator Rodríguez said.
Internal HHS documents show that the department has reallocated more than $260m from its budget to accommodate the growing funds needed to continue to house an increasing number of migrant children, according to the Hill. Programs whose funding reportedly is being now allocated for detention purposes include the National Cancer Institute, the HIV/AIDS program, National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Rodríguez said he had asked the authorities about education and mental health services for the children and was told they weren’t provided because the children are there for a short period of time.
But “it’s not a short period of time any more,” he said.
Traveling on the few public roads and dirt tracks in the vicinity of the almost-invisible, tucked away camp reveals no more than the tops of one or two tents. From the air it is possible, at least, to witness this makeshift but growing community thrown together under canvas, behind wire, even if not to discern its members’ names or their fate. David Stout said it saddened him.
Rodríguez summed up his disapproval thus: “Children shouldn’t be in these facilities in the first place.”