Before abandoning its family separation policy last Wednesday, June 20, the Trump administration made a failed effort to vastly expand the size of a tent city for immigrant children, multiple sources told Texas Monthly. The initiative by the Trump administration included a no-bid, yearlong contract said to be worth up to $1 billion for a company willing to implement the plan. That contract was rejected by two Texas companies that were considered the only qualified candidates for the work.
The initiative would have transformed the current 400-bed tent city near Tornillo, in West Texas, into a massive 4,000-bed operation.
A day after the final refusal by the two companies—APTIM and BCFS Health and Human Services Emergency Management—to take on the lucrative contract, the Trump administration announced it would end the separation of families at the border. It remains unclear whether the administration’s decision to end family separation had anything to do with its inability to expand the capacity for holding these kids.
During a media tour of the Tornillo facility on Monday, an “incident commander” who works for BCFS and who asked not to be identified by name said the company turned down the contract “because we think you shouldn’t do sole-source contracts for something this big.” He said the company prefers to deal with thirty-day contract increments that are better suited to emergencies.
Two sources—one in the private sector and one in government—told Texas Monthly that the yearlong contract could have been worth in excess of $1 billion, but the incident commander and a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services wouldn’t confirm that amount.
HHS spokesman Mark Weber, who was present at the media tour in Tornillo, confirmed that the agency had offered so-called single-source contracts to both BCFS and APTIM to expand the Tornillo facility to 4,000 beds for up to a year, and that both companies declined. He said the agency uses all appropriate means available in responding to emergencies, including the use of no-bid contracts, which it believed was appropriate in this case.
Spokesman Weber said he didn’t know if any other companies were approached for the contract before the decision was made to end family separations. A government source, who asked not to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly, said BCFS and APTIM were the only two obvious choices to run a facility of that size. APTIM officials declined comment, referring media inquiries to HHS.
The failed effort by the Trump administration to establish a mega-tent city shows the extent to which the administration was willing to go to enforce a policy that was widely criticized by both Democrats and Republicans.
‘A stupid decision by our leadership’
The BCFS incident commander harshly criticized the Trump administration for the family separation policy. He said the current 400-bed tent shelters would not have been needed if the administration hadn’t begun separating families apprehended at the border. “I totally agree that separation never should have happened. These kids were dumped here because of a stupid decision by our leadership,” the incident commander said.
BCFS is a San Antonio–based nonprofit formerly known as Baptist Child and Family Services. It operates six separate companies, with its Health and Human Services arm providing emergency assistance at disasters. The company has responded to every hurricane since Katrina, the incident commander said. The people and equipment at the Tornillo shelter have been part of multiple disaster responses, he said.
BCFS also offered emergency services following the mass shooting last year at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. In late 2016 and early 2017, the company operated a 3,500-bed facility for unaccompanied immigrant children on Fort Bliss land in southern New Mexico. The possible 4,000-bed facility for Tornillo would have been similar to the previous Fort Bliss site, the incident commander said.
The incident commander said during the media tour that the Tornillo facility could close as early as July 13, when BCFS’s thirty-day contract expires, though HHS later said it “will make determinations about opening and closing unaccompanied alien children program shelters based on the number of beds needed to provide appropriate care for minors in the program.”
If the shelter closes next month, children who have not been placed with a relative or other sponsor will be taken to another shelter. The BCSF incident commander said that Trump’s abandonment of the family-separation policy would likely eliminate the need for additional shelter space, but administration officials have said they may build new facilities for children on military bases, including Fort Bliss in El Paso and Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo.
A look inside the Tornillo shelter
At the current Tornillo facility, children are housed in air-conditioned tents, ten bunk beds per tent. The site has one dining hall, health clinics, and recreation areas; those facilities would have been expanded in a 4,000-bed facility, and an educational facility would have been created, the incident commander said.
The Tornillo shelter housed 326 children as of Monday, including 13 girls. Twenty-three of those children were separated from their parents at the border after the Trump administration adopted its “zero tolerance” policy that refers 100 percent of illegal entries into U.S. for criminal prosecution. The rest of the children in the Tornillo tent city on Monday had arrived at the border unaccompanied by an adult and had been in a more permanent shelter before the family separation policy began. They were moved to the tents in Tornillo to make room in permanent shelters for younger children separated from their parents at the border.
During Monday’s media tour, journalists were able to observe children but were discouraged from talking to them. In brief conversations, several boys said they were well treated and well fed. About thirty boys were playing on a makeshift soccer field in the morning, but that would end when the temperature exceeded 98 degrees before 11 a.m. They would be allowed back out at night when the temperature cooled again.
The other company approached for the contract
APTIM, the other company approached to take a no-bid contract to oversee a 4,000-bed facility in Tornillo, is a multifaceted company based in the Houston suburb of The Woodlands that is owned by the private equity firm Veritas Capital, based in New York City.
APTIM has worked in conjunction with BCFS on disaster response. The company describes itself as “a leading global provider of integrated maintenance services, environmental engineering and remediation, infrastructure EPC services, program management, and disaster response and recovery for private sector and government customers.”
APTIM has a contract with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide rapid-response assistance during natural disasters.