Tented in Texas: Un­doc­u­mented youths await their spon­sors.

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY ARELIS R. HERNÁN­DEZ arelis.her­nan­dez@wash­post.com

tornillo, tex. — Work­ers com­pared it to a gi­ant slum­ber party.

Flow­ers made of plas­tic bot­tles, chains of col­or­ful con­struc­tion pa­per and pic­tures of Dis­ney princesses stripped from col­or­ing books adorned dozens of bunk beds in­side a cav­ernous white tent where hun­dreds of Cen­tral Amer­i­can teenagers have spent the past sev­eral weeks.

On the other side of what looked like a mil­i­tary base, in smaller beige tents that housed up to 20 young men apiece, faux spi­der webs were strung across the bed frames for Hal­loween. Clus­ters of Span­ish-speak­ing teens placed strips of blue tape across their chests to in­di­cate their team af­fil­i­a­tion as a spir­ited soc­cer match took place on a makeshift pitch of dirt and syn­thetic grass.

The 123-tent com­plex 30 miles from El Paso is a hold­ing fa­cil­ity for un­doc­u­mented youths who crossed the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der and are wait­ing to be re­united with par­ents and rel­a­tives. About 1,500 mi­nors are housed there.

Of­fi­cials at the U.S. De­part­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices, which con­tracts with a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion to run the fa­cil­ity, took re­porters on a tour Fri­day, pro­vid­ing a glimpse at one facet of the na­tion’s evolv­ing mi­grant cri­sis.

The tem­po­rary over­flow cen­ter opened in June, when a net­work of about 100 HHS-con­tracted shel­ters across the coun­try was ap­proach­ing ca­pac­ity be­cause of a steady flow of mi­nors across the bor­der and a grow­ing wait for rel­a­tives and other po­ten­tial spon­sors to get through back­ground checks.

At the time, the es­ti­mated 12,000 mi­nors in HHS cus­tody in­cluded more than 2,500 chil­dren sep­a­rated from their par­ents or other adults at the bor­der as a re­sult of Pres­i­dent Trump’s crack­down. Most of those sep­a­rated chil­dren have since been re­united with par­ents or re­leased to a spon­sor, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est fil­ings in a law­suit chal­leng­ing the sepa­ra­tions.

But the amount of time it takes to vet po­ten­tial spon­sors for un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nors con­tin­ues to grow. As a re­sult, the gov­ern­ment has more than tripled the num­ber of beds at Tornillo to po­ten­tially ac­com­mo­date up to 3,800 young mi­grants.

About 3,200 mi­nors have passed through Tornillo so far, stay­ing 29 days on av­er­age. The high­est num­ber of oc­cu­pants at any one time was 1,630 ado­les­cents ages 13 to 17, most of them boys, of­fi­cials said. All had pre­vi­ously spent time in other shel­ters and were close to be­ing re­leased.

“This is their last stop,” HHS spokesman Mark We­ber said.

The de­part­ment es­ti­mates that nearly 51,000 chil­dren will cross the bor­der this year un­ac­com­pa­nied — the third-high­est one-year to­tal in his­tory, of­fi­cials said. As of Au­gust, they spent an av­er­age of 59 days in HHS cus­tody.

BCFS, the San An­to­nio-based non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that op­er­ates Tornillo, spe­cial­izes in erect­ing emer­gency hous­ing af­ter nat­u­ral dis­as­ters. Some of the tents at Tornillo were used to shel­ter peo­ple dis­placed by last year’s Hur­ri­cane Har­vey. HHS said in a no­tice in the Fed­eral Reg­is­ter last month that it will pay up to $367.9 mil­lion be­tween mid-Septem­ber and De­cem­ber to op­er­ate the shel­ter.

De­part­ment of­fi­cials said they want to re­lease chil­dren to spon­sors as quickly and as safely as pos­si­ble, but they are also wary of past mis­takes in which mi­nors were mis­tak­enly handed off to hu­man traf­fick­ers.

BCFS does not al­low mi­grant chil­dren to keep cell­phones at the camp be­cause of fears they will be con­tacted by traf­fick­ers who helped bring some of them into the coun­try. The youths can call rel­a­tives who are on an ap­proved list on phones pro­vided by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. They have no ac­cess to the In­ter­net.

Camp res­i­dents wear lan­yards around their neck that hold photo ID cards list­ing their date of birth and date of ar­rival at Tornillo.

As part of its screen­ing ef­forts, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is ask­ing po­ten­tial spon­sors and mem­bers of their house­holds to pro­vide fin­ger­prints and un­dergo back­ground screen­ing be­fore chil­dren can be re­leased to them.

A new in­for­ma­tion-shar­ing agree­ment be­tween HHS and the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity has in­creased con­cerns that some po­ten­tial spon­sors, many of whom are in the coun­try il­le­gally, will be scared to come for­ward, know­ing their in­for­ma­tion could be ac­ces­si­ble to im­mi­gra­tion en­force­ment agents.

But of­fi­cials said that risk has not stopped thou­sands of par­ents and other rel­a­tives from ap­ply­ing as spon­sors.

The tent fa­cil­ity’s in­ci­dent com­man­der, who spoke to re­porters on the con­di­tion that his name be with­held, said more than half of the young­sters at the tent camp — 826 — can be re­leased as soon as FBI back­ground checks are com­pleted.

When asked why there were still in Tornillo, sev­eral chil­dren said, “Huel­las!” — Span­ish for “fin­ger­prints.”

Ad­vo­cates say they are wor­ried about the level of over­sight at Tornillo, even more than at other shel­ters, be­cause of the large num­ber of chil­dren and teens housed there and the rel­a­tively aus­tere na­ture of the fa­cil­ity.

“Any­one who keeps chil­dren has to be li­censed by the state of Texas, ex­cept the fed­eral gov­ern­ment,” said Pa­tri­cia Ma­cias, a re­tired Texas fam­ily court judge. “Who is keep­ing the gov­ern­ment ac­count­able?”

But the in­ci­dent com­man­der said his pro­gram ex­ceeds Texas’s child-care stan­dards reg­u­lat­ing such things as the adult-to-child ra­tio (8 to 1), safety fea­tures (24-hour fire and EMS ser­vice) and ac­cess to lawyers and men­tal­health and so­cial work­ers. Not one child has tried to es­cape or has been se­ri­ously ill, he said.

BCFS started of­fer­ing classes in ba­sic so­cial stud­ies, math, science and English in re­cent weeks, sup­ply­ing the young mi­grants with work­books and hir­ing re­tired teach­ers to help lead ses­sions.

“They are re­ceiv­ing ed­u­ca­tion, but this is not school,” he said.

Each night, be­fore bed at 10 p.m., res­i­dents are en­cour­aged to write down their thoughts in com­po­si­tion books. Some keep these jour­nals tucked un­der­neath Bi­bles that could be seen rest­ing on their pil­lows.

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