A temporary child detention facility, which was set up in the West Texas desert during the family separation crisis in June, will expand from 1,200 to 3,800 beds and stay open at least through the end of the year, even though the controversial practice of taking children from their parents at the border has ended, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced Tuesday.
“The need for the continuation of the operation at Tornillo is based on the number of unaccompanied alien children in the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement at HHS’s Administration for Children and Families, who crossed the border alone without their parent or legal guardian. ‘Family separations’ resulting from the zero tolerance policy ended on June 20, 2018, and are not driving this need,” HHS spokesman Kenneth Wolfe said.
Critics of the Trump administration’s immigration efforts say the continuing need for the tent shelter in Tornillo, south of El Paso, is driven by policies that make it harder to place unaccompanied children with sponsors in the United States. “If there is no longer an intent to have family separation children coming to HHS, it’s just not clear why they would be expecting such a continuing rise in the number of children in care,” said Mark Greenberg, who headed HHS’s Administration for Children and Families for three years during the Obama administration. He said a variety of Trump administration policies have been driving up the number of children remaining in government custody from about 3,000 in 2016 to more than 12,000 today.
Keeping children in detention for months on end is bad policy, Greenberg said. “Part of the reason for that is there are legal requirements of programs to meet, and the other part is recognizing that it is not in the best interest of children to be in congregate care facilities for long periods of time, and that the best interests of children will be to be with their parents or close family relatives if that’s a possible option.” Long-term detention also is bad for taxpayers, he said, because it costs hundreds of dollars per night to house children, with temporary facilities like Tornillo being the most expensive options. Once the Tornillo center is built out to its new capacity, it will cost about $100 million a month to operate, according to a source familiar with the plans, who asked not to be identified because he or she isn’t authorized to talk publicly.
Data from Customs and Border Protection indicate that more than 41,000 unaccompanied minors have been apprehended at the Southwest border through the first 10 months of Fiscal Year 2018, an increase of 17 percent over the same period a fiscal year earlier. However, those numbers have fluctuated dramatically in recent years and are down 14 percent from the same point in the fiscal year in 2016. The vast majority of them have come from Central America.
The federal Office of Refugee Resettlement’s mission has been to care for children caught crossing the border without a parent or guardian and to place them with a sponsoring family member if possible while the judge decides their deportation case. The vast majority of such children in recent years have been placed with a parent or other family member within a month or so, but that changed earlier this year. In April month, HHS and the Department of Homeland Security entered into a memorandum of agreement that called for the two agencies to share data about immigrant children and families, which controversially required that any person wanting to sponsor an unaccompanied minor in government custody had to first submit fingerprints of all adults in the household to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Critics of the fingerprint policy warned that it would deter thousands of potential sponsors who wouldn’t want to share that information with ICE because it could jeopardize their own ability to stay in the country. The number of unaccompanied children placed with sponsors this fiscal year is on pace to be down 30 percent compared to the prior year, even as more such children are apprehended at the border, according to HHS statistics.
Wolfe said 12,800 children are currently in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a number that is higher than at any point during the family separation crisis earlier this year. Most of the children are held in permanent shelter facilities scattered across the country, but some are held in temporary tent shelters in Tornillo and in Homestead, Florida. The Obama administration also opened temporary shelters when the numbers of unaccompanied minors surged, including a 1,800-bed facility at Fort Bliss near El Paso in 2016. The average stay in ORR custody before release to a sponsor is now 59 days, Wolfe said, which is almost double the length of stay at the end of the Obama administration.
Even before the family separation fiasco, the Trump administration had taken a number of steps the past two years that taxed its capacity for housing immigrant children in its custody, said Jennifer Podkul, director of policy for Kids in Need of Defense, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that provides legal representation to children in immigration court. “So what they’ve done is, just before they got this incredible influx of separated children, they had two policies that are actually slowing down the release, the reunifications. One is this memorandum of understanding,” which requires closer cooperation between ICE and ORR, Podkul said. “The other is they now have a policy that started in June 2017 where the director of ORR has to personally approve the reunification of any child who’s in a staff-secure or secure facility. And that has also caused a bottleneck. There are a lot of children who are not being reunified.” The fingerprinting requirement, which began in June of this year, has exacerbated the problem further.
Trump administration officials previously dismissed concerns that they might be deterring families from seeking to reunite with children. “If somebody is unwilling to claim their child from custody because they’re concerned about their own immigration status, I think that, de facto, calls into question whether they’re an adequate sponsor and whether we should be releasing a child to that person,” Steven Wagner, the acting assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families at HHS, said in a call with reporters in May.
The Tornillo shelter was set up in June at the Marcelino Serna Port of Entry, a border crossing named for an undocumented immigrant who went on to become the most decorated Texan of World War I. It was initially set up for 400 children but now has a capacity for 1,200, Wolfe said. The administration ended the family separation practice several days after the shelter opened, and the facility has primarily housed unaccompanied minors, officials have said.
Texas Monthly reported in June that two companies turned down a potential billion-dollar no-bid contract to run a 4,000-bed facility at Tornillo. One of those companies was BCFS, a Texas-based nonprofit that has been running the shelter on renewable thirty-day contracts since it was open. The Tornillo incident commander for BCFS, 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 shelter would have been unnecessary if not for family separation. “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 told media during a June tour. BCFS will continue to operate the shelter under the new contract, which runs through December 31, Wolfe said. He didn’t respond to questions on the contract’s value or the process used in the award. He said that 1,400 of the 3,800 beds at Tornillo will initially be in “reserve status,” indicating that the initial population expectations are about 2,400 children.