The Trump administration is asking Congress for an additional $190 million to fund a West Texas tent facility and other programs for children who arrive at the border without a parent or guardian, a leading House Democrat said Thursday. “Over my dead body will we provide another nickel for these folks to do what they are doing here,” said Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the subcommittee that oversees appropriations for the Department of Health and Human Services, which runs the facility in the small El Paso County town of Tornillo.
In a conference call with reporters this week, DeLauro vowed that she and other Democrats “are going to get accountability for the taxpayers’ dollars that are in fact supporting a policy of child abuse” when they become the majority party in the House next month. Evy Ramos, a spokeswoman for BCFS Health and Human Services, the San Antonio-based nonprofit that operates the Tornillo facility under an HHS contract, said numerous outside professionals who have visited Tornillo “come away with positive reports regarding the treatment of children. Bottom line, the children at Tornillo are safe and well cared for.”
HHS officials referred questions about the supplemental budget request to the Office of Management and Budget. An OMB spokeswoman said “OMB routinely provides technical assistance to Congress as they draft funding measures” but didn’t respond to questions about the reason for requesting the additional $190 million just over two months into the new fiscal year. The administration’s new appropriations request, provided to Texas Monthly by DeLauro’s office, said the additional $190 million was needed “to address fiscal pressures the program is facing due to current program trends.”
DeLauro was joined on the media call by Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-California, and Representative-elect Veronica Escobar, an El Paso Democrat. “We are now in the business of routinely incarcerating children in our country. And the costs are exorbitant and outrageous and those are dollars that obviously should be going toward family reunification and toward more humane approaches to this,” Escobar said.
The Trump administration opened the Tornillo facility in June, originally with 400 beds. It has expanded twice and now has 3,800 beds. Officials said about 2,300 children have been held in Tornillo’s tents in recent weeks. BCFS’s contracts for Tornillo called for payments of up to $450 million, but Ramos said the actual payments to BCFS through the end of November totaled $144 million. The contract amounts are maximum payments that BCFS could receive if Tornillo operated at capacity.
The administration’s $190 million request for additional money is in a funding bill that must be passed by December 21 to avoid a partial government shutdown. The HHS budget for fiscal year 2019, passed by Congress and signed by President Trump in September, included $1.3 billion to care for what the government calls “unaccompanied alien children,” similar to funding the prior year. The fiscal year began October 1. In September, HHS Secretary Alex Azar authorized the transfer of $446 million from programs such as cancer research and education to cover the additional costs of housing migrant children in fiscal year 2018.
The Trump administration based its 2019 budget request on an assumption that the number of migrant children in government custody wouldn’t exceed 9,000. The government currently has more than 14,000 migrant children in its custody, a record high. About 3,000 children were in custody at the outset of the Trump administration.
Customs and Border Protection said 50,036 unaccompanied children were taken into custody at the border in fiscal year 2018. That’s up from 41,455 the previous year, but well below the numbers in the two previous surges of unaccompanied minors in 2014 and 2016.
Children who arrive at the border without a parent or guardian and seek asylum are taken into custody by an HHS agency called the Office of Refugee Resettlement. That agency seeks to place them with a sponsor in the United States, usually a parent or other family member, while the asylum request is considered by the courts. When Trump took office, it took an average of 30 days to place a child with a sponsor. The average now is about 75 days, DeLauro said.
HHS spokeswoman Evelyn Stauffer said the department is “balancing speed with safety and will err on the side of safety” when dealing with unaccompanied children at the border. She said three major factors contributed to the growth of the number of migrant children in government custody—an increase in unaccompanied children at the border, the focus earlier this year on reunifying children who had been separated from their parents at the border as a result of the Trump administration’s family separation policy, and “additional requirements put into place to reduce risk and increase safety for (children) released into the homes of sponsors given the number of bad actors involved.”
DeLauro, Roybal-Allard and others have said the lengthening time in custody is caused by new policies implemented by the Trump administration, particularly a requirement that potential sponsors submit fingerprints for themselves and any other adults in the household. The fingerprints are then reviewed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has acknowledged using the information to arrest more than 40 people who sought to sponsor children. DeLauro on Thursday called for the Trump administration to revert to prior policies on sponsor placements. Many potential sponsors are undocumented or have family members who are, making them wary of stepping forward, critics of the fingerprint policy have said.
“This is a manufactured crisis and children are suffering as a result of it,” Roybal-Allard said. DeLauro interjected, “And don’t tell any of the three of us this is for the purpose of safeguarding children. We know about safeguarding children and we are willing to look at how that gets done.” Roybal-Allard added, “And if it was about safeguarding children, Rosa, then they would have the mental health, all the health facilities, everything that is needed to take care of these children, which in fact is not the case.”
The HHS inspector general issued a report last week that said Tornillo “does not employ a sufficient number of staff clinicians to provide adequate mental health care” for children at the site. “It is unclear how clinician staff at Tornillo could properly assess and respond to the (children’s) needs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, given the current and budgeted staffing ratios, particularly for a population believed to have experienced significant trauma,” the report said. The inspector general’s report also raised concerns about the lack of FBI fingerprint checks for employees at Tornillo.
Ramos, the BCFS spokeswoman, said, “In regards to mental health, we exceed the mental health clinician requirements stipulated by ORR by 100 percent. It is currently one clinician for every 50 children versus the 1:100 required. Each child is visited each day by a mental health clinician. Any child can also request to see a mental health clinician 24/7.” However, the inspector general’s report said the ratio of one clinician for every 100 children used for temporary facilities like Tornillo was no longer appropriate because of the population growth there, and increasingly longer stays by children. The report urged HHS to require one mental health clinician for every 12 children, the care standard for all other facilities housing migrant children.
De Lauro and Roybal-Allard, the top Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee overseeing funding for the Department of Homeland Security, issued a statement on Monday calling for the closure of Tornillo. BCFS’s latest contract with HHS expires December 31, and the nonprofit has said it hasn’t agreed to any extension beyond that date. But it’s not clear that the Trump administration has many options beyond continued contract renewals with BCFS, which owns the tents and other equipment at Tornillo. The government only has about 11,000 beds in permanent shelters, and also operates another temporary shelter at a former Air Force base near Miami.