The San Antonio-based nonprofit that is operating a controversial West Texas tent city for migrant children wants out of the job. But the government isn’t revealing the future of the facility in Tornillo, a farming community southeast of El Paso, that currently holds about 2,300 children.
“We don’t want to be there, but we can’t abandon the children,” Evy Ramos, a spokeswoman for BCFS Health and Human Services, which has operated the Tornillo facility since June, told Texas Monthly. The company has agreed to a short-term contract with the federal government despite long-stated misgivings about managing the complex. “We have not agreed to another extension, which is not to say that at some point we might,” Ramos said about the company’s contract with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The fate of Tornillo comes as, once again, the issue of border security and what to do with Central Americans fleeing to the United States because of violence in their homeland, is heating up. On Friday, the Department of Homeland Security asked the Pentagon for a 45-day extension for the deployment of U.S. Army forces along the border. The troops are scheduled to withdraw by December 15, but the Pentagon is expected to approve the DHS request.
“Given the ongoing threat at our Southern border—today the Department of Homeland Security submitted a request for assistance to the Department of Defense to extend its support through January 31, 2019,” DHS spokeswoman Katie Waldman said in a statement to the Washington Post.
The request also comes just one day before Andrés Manuel López Obrador is scheduled to be sworn into office as Mexico’s new president.
Both Republican and Democratic leaders on the border have been critical of the continuing reliance on the Tornillo tent facility by the Trump administration. “Similar to building a wall from sea to shining sea, detaining kids in Tornillo is the most expensive and least effective policy approach that fails to address root causes of migration flows or make anyone safer,” Representative Will Hurd, a Republican whose sprawling district includes Tornillo, told the AP. Hurd has said that the United States needs to be more focused on the problems in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador that are driving the current influx of thousands of families to the border.
Longtime El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar, a Democrat who will be sworn in as a member of Congress on January 3, said the continuing presence of the Tornillo shelter is a symbol of multiple failures by the Trump administration. “There’s got to be something better than putting kids in these youth jails, essentially. The fundamental problem is we have an administration and a government that doesn’t know how to address these challenges,” Escobar said. “And essentially what’s happening is that our government is making the situation worse and we have to address short-term issues and long- term issues. In the short term we have to figure out a way to connect these kids with families, with foster homes. … And over the long term we have to solve the challenge of migration of refugees from Central America to the United States.”
HHS contracted with BCFS in June to open a 400-bed facility in Tornillo for what the government calls “unaccompanied alien children,” generally children who are apprehended at the border without a parent or guardian. The facility opened at the Marcelino Serna Port of Entry during the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on the border, which resulted in the Border Patrol taking more than 2,000 children from their parents. Those separated children were classified as unaccompanied children and placed in custody of an HHS agency called the Office of Refugee Resettlement, whose permanent shelters across the country were already nearing their capacity of about 11,000 beds. That led to the decision to open what was supposed to be a temporary tent facility in Tornillo.
HHS officials didn’t immediately respond Friday for a request for comment on the future of Tornillo. But spokesman Mark Weber told The Associated Press earlier this week that the Trump administration hasn’t made a decision on what to do with Tornillo after the current BCFS contract expires. “Whatever it is we decide to do, in the very near future, we’ll do a public notice about that,” he told AP. The current number of migrant children in government custody—more than 14,000—far exceeds the number of beds in permanent shelters across the country, so it’s not clear that the government has any choice but to continue operating Tornillo.
Tornillo was the target of multiple protests this summer by opponents of the administration’s family separation policy, even though the facility never held more than a few dozen children who had been taken from their parents. The Trump administration ended the family separation practice in late June, but the population of children in ORR custody continued to grow, largely because of administration policies that made it more difficult for sponsors—usually other family members—to take in children who arrived at the border without a parent or guardian. The number of children in ORR custody has ballooned from about 3,000 at the beginning of the Trump administration in January 2017 to more than 14,000 today. ORR has not significantly expanded its permanent shelter space, so the population at Tornillo has grown from about 200 in June to about 2,300 over the past several weeks. The tent facility has expanded from a 400-bed capacity in June to 3,800 beds today.
Shortly after the Tornillo facility opened in June, Texas Monthly reported that BCFS and another Texas-based company, APTIM, had turned down no-bid contracts to expand Tornillo from about 400 beds to 4,000, which could have been worth as much as $1 billion. A senior BCFS official, who asked to be identified only as the “incident commander” at Tornillo, said at the time that the nonprofit rejected the proposal “because we think you shouldn’t do sole-source contracts for something this big.” But that is essentially what has unfolded over the past six months, with HHS extending the BCFS contract several times, most recently in mid-September, when the agency agreed to spend up to $368 million through December 31.
HHS has agreed to pay as much as $450 million to BCFS since June, though Ramos said the actual payments have been well below that because the maximum amounts in the contract would only happen if Tornillo reached capacity. She said she couldn’t immediately give a precise amount of payments received. BCFS officials have said in the past that it costs about $775 a day to house a child at the Tornillo facility, compared to about $256 a day in a permanent facility for migrant children.
It’s not clear whether HHS has sought another contractor to operate the Tornillo facility. Comprehensive Health Services, a Florida company that operates a temporary shelter for migrant children in Homestead, Florida, had job fairs in El Paso this summer recruiting for positions at Tornillo. Several people who applied for jobs told Texas Monthly that they had been told by a CHS recruiter that the company expected to take over the Tornillo contract in November or December. In early November, some applicants got notices from CHS saying, “We have received official notice that the government has cancelled the solicitation for the Tornillo Shelter. This means that a new contract will NOT be awarded. There was no additional information shared.”
CHS officials have repeatedly declined to comment about the Tornillo facility, directing inquiries to HHS. The federal agency hasn’t responded to questions about the Florida company’s role at Tornillo.
The Associated Press reported this week that HHS had waived the requirement that employees at Tornillo go through FBI fingerprint checks before hiring. Ramos said BCFS has not been given access to the FBI fingerprint system so has had to use other screening methods. She said the agency continues to work with HHS to gain access to the fingerprint check system. Ramos said there have been no reports of physical or sexual abuse at Tornillo.