Tem­po­rary tent shel­ter for mi­grant youths in Texas is opened for tour

Lodi News-Sentinel - - PAGE TWO - By Brit­tny Mejia

TORNILLO, Texas — A sign hung at the back of the sand-col­ored tent wel­com­ing vis­i­tors: “Bien­venidos a Al­pha 11.”

Ten tidy bunk beds filled the space, the name of each boy who oc­cu­pied one writ­ten on blue tape af­fixed to the frame. On the way out hung two Amer­i­can flags and the house rules for the 1,500 chil­dren who call the Tornillo tent shel­ter home.

The tem­po­rary shel­ter for teenage boys and girls in the bor­der town south­east of El Paso has drawn in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion and wide­spread crit­i­cism since it opened in June, with many voic­ing con­cerns over the level of care.

Be­cause it is con­sid­ered tem­po­rary, it is not re­quired to be li­censed as a child­care fa­cil­ity or to pro­vide the same med­i­cal, men­tal health and ed­u­ca­tional ser­vices as roughly 100 other fa­cil­i­ties for im­mi­grant chil­dren across the coun­try.

On Fri­day, more than a dozen news re­porters were al­lowed in­side for a tour.

When the shel­ter opened, there were sev­eral hun­dred beds; it has since ex­panded to 3,800 beds, with many cur­rently un­filled. The en­camp­ment has been run un­der short-term con­tracts by BCFS, a Texas-based non­profit, and it ex­pected to re­main open at least through the end of the year.

An in­ci­dent com­man­der for BCFS led the tour and blamed de­lays in mov­ing chil­dren to homes on a long wait for back­ground check re­sults.

In the Tornillo shel­ter there are cur­rently 826 re- leases pend­ing the re­sults of non­crim­i­nal back­ground checks of the spon­sors, ac­cord­ing to the in­ci­dent com­man­der, who asked not to be iden­ti­fied by name. He said that it is tak­ing more than three months to get the check re­sults back.

“I think it’s the right thing to do for these kids, but I think it should be done very quick,” he said. “I don’t un­der­stand why it’s tak­ing so long.”

The back­ground checks are con­ducted by the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity un­der an ex­panded pro­to­col that took ef­fect this spring. Fed­eral of­fi­cials say the new pol­icy pro­tects chil­dren, but crit­ics ar­gue that it is meant to help im­mi­gra­tion au­thor­i­ties iden­tify other peo­ple in the U.S. il­le­gally.

The av­er­age stay in all shel­ters for im­mi­grant chil­dren is 59 days, ac­cord­ing to the De­part­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices. Mi­nors spend an av­er­age of 25 days at Tornillo, where they have been even­tu­ally taken, in most cases, be­cause they ar­rived at the bor­der them­selves or with adults who were not their par­ents.

In the first 11 months of fis­cal year 2018, 45,704 chil­dren were ap­pre­hended on the south­ern bor­der, a 19 per­cent in­crease from the pre­vi­ous year, ac­cord­ing to U.S. Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion.

Cur­rently, there are 13,000 im­mi­grant chil­dren liv­ing in govern­ment-con­tracted shel­ters, ac­cord­ing to Mark We­ber, a Health and Hu­man Ser­vices spokesman. Spon­sors are con­tin­u­ing to come for­ward, he said.

Most of the kids who ar­rive in Tornillo are com­ing from an­other shel­ter, We­ber said.

“This is a last stop,” he said.

The num­ber of those within the Tornillo shel­ter peaked on Sept. 28, at 1,637. The num­bers have been go­ing down, ac­cord­ing to the in­ci­dent com­man­der.

In a tele­phone brief­ing with re­porters ear­lier this month, Jen­nifer Pod­kul, pol­icy direc­tor at the le­gal ad­vo­cacy group Kids in Need of De­fense, voiced con­cerns about the tem­po­rary shel­ter.

“There are ob­vi­ous con­cerns about keep­ing kids in such a fa­cil­ity for long pe­ri­ods of time,” she said. “We’re wor­ried that this is a trend to hold chil­dren in lower stan­dards than what’s re­quired by cur­rent law.”

Oth­ers have urged Congress to cre­ate an in­de­pen­dent med­i­cal and men­tal health mon­i­tor­ing team for chil­dren in govern­ment cus­tody.

A sam­ple daily sched­ule for chil­dren in Tornillo in­cludes so­cial stud­ies, math, English as a sec­ond lan­guage, science and an out­side dorm ac­tiv­ity.

Ev­ery unit is air con­di­tioned, and in the boy’s sec­tion there are 20 in each tent. Three di­rect case work­ers are as­signed to each unit, the in­ci­dent com­man­der said. In the Al­pha 11 tent, boys dec­o­rated bunks with cutout pump­kins and spi­ders for Hal­loween. A print­out of Je­sus hung be­hind bunk 17.

All of those housed in­side the shel­ter are aged 13 to 17. There have not been any at­tempted run­aways, “which is highly un­ex­pected,” the in­ci­dent com­man­der said.

Out­side Bar­ber­shop 1, a line of boys from Hon­duras and Gu­atemala waited af­ter get­ting their hair cut. Some have been in the shel­ter for 15 days.

“They treat us well, thank God,” one said.

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