TORNILLO, Texas – The Trump administration announced in June it would open a temporary shelter for up to 360 migrant children in this isolated corner of the Texas desert. Less than six months later, the facility has expanded into a detention camp holding thousands of teenagers – and it shows every sign of becoming more permanent.
By Tuesday, 2,324 largely Central American boys and girls between the ages of 13 and 17 were sleeping inside the highly guarded facility in rows of bunk beds in canvas tents, some of which once housed first responders to Hurricane Harvey. More than 1,300 teens have arrived since the end of October alone.
Rising from the cotton fields and dusty roads not far from the dark fence marking the border between the U.S. and Mexico, the camp has rows of beige tents and golf carts that ferry staffers carrying walkie-talkies. Teens with identical haircuts and government-issued shirts and pants can be seen walking single file from tent to tent, flanked by staff at the front and back.
More people are detained in Tornillo’s tent city than in all but one of the nation’s 204 federal prisons, yet construction continues.
The camp’s population may grow even more if members of the migrant caravans castigated by President Donald Trump enter the U.S. Federal officials have said they may fly teens from the caravans who arrive in San Diego directly to El Paso, then bus them to Tornillo, according to a nonprofit social service provider who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to publicly discuss the matter.
An Associated Press investigation has found that the camp’s rapid growth has created serious problems, including:
None of the 2,100 staff are going through rigorous FBI fingerprint background checks, according to a government watchdog memo obtained exclusively by AP. “Instead, Tornillo is using checks conducted by a private contractor that has access to less comprehensive data, thereby heightening the risk that an individual with a criminal history could have direct access to children,” the memo says.
Costs appear to be soaring more than 50 percent higher than the government has disclosed. What began as an emergency, 30-day shelter has transformed into a vast tent city that could cost taxpayers more than $430 million.
The government is allowing the nonprofit running the facility to sidestep mental health care requirements. Under federal policy, migrant youth shelters generally must have one mental health clinician for every 12 kids, but shelter officials have indicated that Tornillo can staff just one clinician for every 100 children, according to two immigration rights advocates who spoke with AP.
Federal plans to close Tornillo by New Years’ Eve will be nearly impossible to meet. There aren’t 2,300 extra beds in other facilities. A contract obtained by AP shows the project could continue into 2020 and planned closures have already been extended three times since this summer.
Tornillo’s teens were not separated from their families at the border this summer, but they’re held there because federal immigration policies have resulted in the detention of a record 14,000 migrant children, filling shelter beds around the country to capacity. Almost all came on their own from Central America hoping to join family members in the United States.
Some children have been detained at Tornillo since the tent camp opened in June. As the population inside the tall wire fences swells, and as some children stay there longer, the young detainees’ anguish has deepened.
“The few times they let me call my mom I would tell her that one day I would be free, but really I felt like I would be there for the rest of my life,” a 17-year-old from Honduras who was held at Tornillo earlier this year told AP. “I feel so bad for the kids who are still there. What if they have to spend Christmas there? They need a hug, and nobody is allowed to hug there.”
After his family passed extensive background checks, the teen was recently released to them, but said he still has nightmares he’s back inside. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal from immigration authorities.
Confining and caring for so many children is a challenge. By day, minders walk the teen detainees to their meals, showers and recreation on the arid plot of land guarded by multiple levels of security. At night the area around the camp, that’s grown from a few dozen to more than 150 tents, is secured and lit up by flood lights.
The nonprofit social service agency contracted to run Tornillo says it is proud of its work. It says it is operating the facility with the same precision and care used for shelters put up after natural disasters.
“We don’t have anything to hide. This is an exceptionally run operation,” said Krista Piferrer, a spokeswoman for BCFS Health and Human Services, a faith-based organization that runs Tornillo. “This isn’t our first rodeo.”
She said they have no guidance from the Trump administration regarding what will happen after Dec. 31.
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Mark Weber, said no decisions have been made about whether Tornillo will close by year’s end as scheduled.
“Whatever it is we decide to do, in the very near future, we’ll do a public notice about that,” he said.
In June, as detention centers for migrant children overflowed, Scott Lloyd, director of HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, signed a memo granting BCFS a waiver to staff up Tornillo without the required child abuse and neglect checks, which raise a red flag about any potential employee who has a record of hurting a child. There were two reasons for the waiver, according to the inspector general: first, the agency was under pressure to move quickly to open the detention camp, and second, Lloyd’s agency assumed Tornillo staff had already undergone FBI fingerprint checks. They had not.
Help-wanted postings quickly popped up, seeking case managers for $15 an hour, youth care workers for $11.27 per hour. And many signed up, eager to work the 12-hour shifts in the hot sun to bring the extra money home.
Two days after Lloyd waived the safety checks, BCFS opened the tent city. Lloyd, under fire for his handling of the migrant crisis, was transferred out of the refugee resettlement branch and to a different division of HHS last week. Weber did not immediately respond to questions as to why the department waived background checks, and referred inquiries to the inspector general.
Three service providers who were brought on to work in the camp in recent months also told AP they were not fingerprinted, including one who started work there just two weeks ago.
Failing to properly check staffers’ backgrounds “can lead to potential abuse and neglect of these kids,” according to Dr. Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“We already know these settings are traumatizing for teenagers,” Kraft added.
Since the facility opened, BCFS has been checking job candidates’ national and local criminal histories and doing multi-state sex offender registry checks, Piferrer said.
“Those are pretty comprehensive,” she added. “Standing up the site, it’s no easy feat, but we know what right looks like.”
BCFS has filed more than 30 reports on “significant incidents” at Tornillo since June, some involving interactions between the children and staff, but none of a sexual nature, Pifferer said. Weber did not immediately respond to questions seeking comment Tuesday.
FBI fingerprint background checks can be completed in a few minutes and reveal much more information about job candidates than checks that simply run a person’s name against criminal history databases, said Jeffrey Harp, a retired FBI assistant special agent in charge.
“How do you know the person is who they say they are unless you do a fingerprint check? They can’t lie about their fingerprints, but they can lie about their name or take on someone else’s identity who has a crystal clean record,” Harp told AP. “More and more employers are finding out they have an employee who is problematic only after the fact, and that’s because their employment screening isn’t really comprehensive.”
More than 50 years of research show institutionalizing young people is traumatizing, with harmful impacts on their psyche and life trajectories, prompting policymakers to seek alternatives to locking up children, said Naomi Smoot, executive director of the nonprofit Coalition for Juvenile Justice.
“Hearing that more than 2,000 kids are in any kind of detention facility is alarming to me,” she said. “That’s not where kids should be around the holidays, particular when they haven’t broken the law.”
Most of the children locked inside Tornillo are never charged with a crime; crossing illegally into the U.S. is a civil offense. By law, migrant children traveling alone into the U.S. must be sent to a government shelter where they stay until they can be united with relatives or other sponsors while awaiting immigration court hearings. Migrant children’s time in government custody has grown longer this year, in part due to the Trump administration’s new requirements for deep background checks on sponsors who agree to take in young immigrants.
Tornillo currently has 3,800 beds for the teens, with 1,400 of those on reserve.
Annunciation House director Ruben Garcia, whose El Paso nonprofit works with recent immigrants, said Tornillo is far more secretive than other government shelters, where he and his staff are routinely allowed inside. At Tornillo workers must sign non-disclosure agreements and visitors are rarely allowed.
“What’s happening inside? Nobody knows. They cannot speak about what they see,” he said. “We’ve been doing this work for 20 years and we’ve never seen anything like this.”
BCFS says the shelter at Tornillo has actually had more media, elected officials, advocacy organizations, child welfare experts and attorneys tour the site than any other ORR operation. The nonprofit said confidentiality agreements are standard, to protect the privacy and rights of clients and those served.
‘Counting the days’
In June, as migrant child detention centers overflowed, HHS announced it was opening a rapidly built tent city at Tornillo, with the idea that most kids would only stay a few days. But within the week there was talk of making a detention camp 10 times as big.
Because the detention camp is on federal property – part of a large U.S. Customs and Border facility – it is not subject to state licensing requirements.
BCFS, a San Antonio nonprofit, runs Tornillo as it operates evacuation centers for hurricanes: There’s food, first aid, activities and rows of bunk beds, but no normal-life activities for stressed-out teens, like formal school, therapy or unsupervised stretches.
Federal officials have said repeatedly that only children without special needs were being sent to Tornillo. But facility administrators recently acknowledged that the Tornillo detainees included children with serious mental health issues who needed to be transferred out to facilities in El Paso in the coming days, according to a person with knowledge of the discussion. The person spoke on a condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk publicly about discussions.
The inspector general said staffing ratios were “dangerously low” for a population that has experienced significant trauma.
“The disproportionately high number of children to clinicians is especially worrisome in light of the continued increase in the number of children and length of stay at Tornillo,” the memo said.
BCFS said the current ratio of clinicians to children is 1 to 50, and that each child sees a mental health specialist every day.
“When a child is found to have a mental health need that cannot be best provided for at Tornillo, a request is made to HHS to transfer the child to a more appropriate facility,” said Piferrer.
Dr. Ryan Matlow, a Stanford clinical psychologist whose work addresses the impact of early life stress, recently interviewed teens at Tornillo. He questions the facility’s capacity to identify kids with special mental health needs given the large number of children and their tendency to suppress emotional distress in order to cope.
“The kids are able to get by in there, but the more time they spend in these sorts of facilities, the greater the consequences, especially when it comes to their emotional and psychological well-being,” said Matlow. “It’s a dangerous and harmful system for kids to be caught in.”
Nonprofit Hope Border Institute advocacy director Camilo Perez-Bustillo and Kristen Torres, who heads the child welfare and immigration division of the nonprofit group First Focus, said they were concerned when Tornillo officials told them they could staff one mental-health clinician per 100 kids.
Perez-Bustillo, who served as a Spanish-language interpreter at the camp earlier this month, said most of the two dozen children he met showed signs of depression and anxiety over when, or whether, they would be released. About two thirds are boys, and half of the teens are Guatemalan. There are no on-site interpreters for teens of indigenous origin who speak Spanish as a second language.
“They are all counting the days they are inside the way prisoners do,” Perez-Bustillo said. “Many of the kids have the sense of being suspended, and anxiousness about how much longer they will be held there.”
Dr. Elizabeth Carll, a teen and trauma specialist who heads the American Psychological Association’s Refugee Mental Health resource network, said institutionalizing so many teens in a geographically remote place makes it harder to recruit qualified clinicians.
“You have to find people who are licensed, who are experts in trauma, who speak Spanish and have worked with teens,” she said. “Where would you find all these qualified professionals?”
Making things worse, Carll said migrant youth are likely to have higher emotional needs after going through hardship, enduring the journey north and being held in detention. They would do better if placed with trained, bilingual foster families, she said.
One shy 16-year-old from Honduras held at Tornillo told an AP reporter as she awaited her immigration court hearing that she was worried that it was taking so long to reunite her with family in Pennsylvania.
“I’m getting tired of waiting because I’ve been there three months,” said the girl, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution by staffers who were monitoring her and other Tornillo detainees. “I’m trying to keep the faith that I will be liberated soon.”
$1,200 per night
For each night each child spends at Tornillo, taxpayers spend up to $1,200 to pay the direct care workers, cooks, cleaners, teachers and emergency services workers, according to information staff at two congressional offices said they were provided on a recent visit. That’s well above the $775 officials have publicly disclosed, and close to five times more than a typical youth migrant shelter costs. The most expensive hotel room in El Paso is about $200 a night.
BCFS did not dispute the cost, but said on average, actual costs are closer to $750 a day, which would bring current operations to more than $12 million a week.
The costs at Tornillo are so high because everything – water, sewage, food, staff and detainees – must be trucked in and out of the remote site. Every few hours, two teams fill up 2,000-gallon tanks of water from a hydrant outside the facility, then drive them back through the fences. Each day, 35,000 gallons of diesel are trucked in as well, to run massive generators that power air conditioners in blazing hot summers and heaters on frigid winter nights.
The teens can play soccer during closely watched recreation periods. They are given yarn to pass the time making brightly colored bracelets and scarves. There aren’t regular classes, but teens have textbooks and workbooks.
Piferrer said BCFS was not charging the government for the tents, fire trucks and ambulance on site.
“We are not going to charge for resources that we already own,” she said. “Everything that is being provided has been directed by the federal government to be provided.”
Scant details about how those funds are spent motivated New York-based software developer Josh Rubin to set up residence in an RV just outside the gates, where he keeps a vigil on the vehicles going in and out. In recent weeks, he said, he has spotted new trends: construction trucks moving equipment in to build another tent, a vehicle carrying heaters, more buses with tinted windows taking children to immigration court.
Staffers are transported to the camp from motels near the El Paso airport, where the tour buses take pains to park on side roads, far from view. On a recent evening outside the Hawthorn Suites hotel, Tornillo workers filed off to bed in the darkness, many talking of feeling sick or exhausted.
Twice a day, the desolate stretch of highway outside Tornillo comes alive as more than a dozen tour buses pull up. Bells sound, lights flash. Workers walk in two by two, wearing khaki pants, neon jackets and backpacks, some wrapped in scarves to guard against the cool desert air.
Many days, Rubin is there alone, holding up a sign saying “Free Them” at the tent city’s entrance. Sometimes the train rumbles by, or cotton drifts in the wind. Black birds fly in geometric patterns in the sky above.
Protests began at Tornillo almost as soon as it opened. State and federal elected officials joined local activists and Hollywood stars deriding the Trump administration’s immigration policies. But public attention turned elsewhere, and now demonstrations are rare.
On a recent afternoon, a group of about 60 activists including rabbis from Ann Arbor, Michigan and students from a local Catholic girls’ school assembled to pray for the teens’ release and sang a throaty version of “Let My People Go.”
After a Department of Homeland Security official blocked them, the group ventured through a fence onto a private dirt road behind the facility. A group of teen boys could be seen across marshland, and a hole in the wire fence had been visibly patched.
“You are not alone!” the activists cried out in Spanish to the youth being led between tents. Some of the teens waved back. One protester wiped away a tear as another banged on a plastic drum, calling out “We love you! We miss you!”
Dalila Reynoso-Gonzalez, a program director for the Methodist immigration advocacy group Justice for our Neighbors of East Texas, said she was moved to demonstrate at Tornillo after helping an immigrant father reunite with his son held there. The boy told her stories of a stark and lonely place and spoke of isolation, fear, disorientation.
He still has a foil blanket issued to him when he first was taken into custody, she said.
“It’s really heavy on my heart,” said Reynoso-Gonzalez. “How did we get to this place, why do we have so many children out there?”
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