Mi­grant teen de­ten­tion camp shut­ting down

Belleville News-Democrat - - News & Obituaries -

The non­profit run­ning what once was the largest U.S. de­ten­tion camp hous­ing mi­grant teenagers said the last chil­dren left the facility Fri­day.

The tent city in Tornillo, Texas, is shut­ting down, and all tents and equip­ment will be re­moved from the site by the end of Jan­uary, said Krista Pi­fer­rer, spokes­woman of BCFS Health and Hu­man Ser­vices.

The U.S. De­part­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices, which over­sees the care of mi­grant chil­dren, did not pro­vide fur­ther de­tails. But a spokesman said last month that the cen­ter had stopped re­ceiv­ing new re­fer­rals.

The Tornillo facility with ca­pac­ity for 360 chil­dren opened in June in an iso­lated pocket of the Texas desert. It ex­panded into a guarded de­ten­tion camp that held more than 2,700 largely Cen­tral Amer­i­can teens in rows of can­vas tents.

At that point, more peo­ple were de­tained in Tornillo’s tent city than in all but one of the na­tion’s 204 fed­eral prisons. Ris­ing from the cot­ton fields and dusty roads not far from the dark fence mark­ing the bor­der be­tween the U.S. and Mex­ico, the camp had rows of beige tents and golf carts that fer­ried staffers car­ry­ing walkie-talkies. Teens with iden­ti­cal hair­cuts and govern­ment-is­sued shirts and pants could be seen walk­ing sin­gle file from tent to tent, flanked by staff at the front and back.

Politi­cians and ad­vo­cates for im­mi­grants and hu­man rights protested at the site over the seven months it was open, with some even tak­ing up vig­ils.

“It was chill­ing to see thou­sands of chil­dren locked up in a tent prison in the desert. It’s great news that those chil­dren have fi­nally been moved out of Tornillo,” said Ore­gon Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Demo­crat who in De­cem­ber in­tro­duced the Shut Down Child Prison Camps Act.

The tent city came un­der fire in Novem­ber after a re­port that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion had waived FBI fin­ger­print checks for the 2,100 staff work­ing there and al­lowed BCFS to staff just one men­tal health clin­i­cian for ev­ery 100 chil­dren. Law­mak­ers called for stricter back­ground checks, more men­tal health sup­port and a pub­lic hear­ing to fur­ther in­ves­ti­gate prob­lems at Tornillo raised by a fed­eral watch­dog re­port and an As­so­ci­ated Press in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Some law­mak­ers said they were pleased to hear about the clo­sure of the facility but warned that other de­ten­tion cen­ters hold­ing mi­grant teens are still open.

“It’s a weight off my shoul­ders to have chil­dren now with fam­ily mem­bers. If you’re try­ing to use kids to fix a bro­ken im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem, then you have a real prob­lem,” said Rep. Will Hurd, a Texas Repub­li­can whose dis­trict in­cludes the de­ten­tion camp.


Tents are seen Dec. 13 through a tarp over the fence of the de­ten­tion camp for mi­grant teens in Tornillo, Texas. The camp closed Fri­day.

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