Last mi­grant youths are moved from Texas ‘tent city’ in the desert

Lodi News-Sentinel - - NATION - By Molly Hen­nessy-Fiske

MCALLEN, Texas — The last child de­parted what was once the na­tion’s largest shel­ter for mi­grant youths on Fri­day, a “tent city” in the west Texas desert town of Tornillo that had spurred protests, of­fi­cial crit­i­cism and pro­posed leg­is­la­tion.

Work­ers have been dis­man­tling parts of the mas­sive tem­po­rary shel­ter east of El Paso for months, ever since the U.S. De­part­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices, the agency re­spon­si­ble for ini­tially hous­ing mi­grant youths, ended its con­tract with the non­profit BCFS Health and Hu­man Ser­vices.

Tornillo had held more than 6,200 teens since it opened June 10, ac­cord­ing to the De­part­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices.

Last sum­mer, when im­mi­grant fam­ily sep­a­ra­tions on the bor­der spawned protests and out­rage from law­mak­ers and celebri­ties, Tornillo be­came a ral­ly­ing point, although of­fi­cials said few of the mi­grant chil­dren sep­a­rated from their par­ents were housed there. Still, a protest camp sprang up, and still re­mains. Juan Or­tiz has been protest­ing out­side Tornillo since Septem­ber, com­mut­ing from Tuc­son where he’s work­ing on his doc­tor­ate in Mex­i­can Amer­i­can stud­ies at the Uni­ver­sity of Ari­zona. Or­tiz, 44, an El Paso na­tive, said that although the chil­dren had been moved, many shel­ter tents re­mained — and so would he un­til the shel­ter dis­ap­pears.

From out­side the fa­cil­ity Fri­day, he said he wor­ried about the chil­dren who’d been moved, con­cerned that gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials "are just go­ing to keep shuf­fling them from place to place."

Vic­to­ria Palmer, a spokes­woman for the Health and Hu­man Ser­vices De­part­ment, said that Tornillo would re­main op­er­a­tional “through early 2019” but that no more mi­grant youths would be placed there. A spokes­woman for BCFS, for­merly known as Bap­tist Child Fam­ily Ser­vices, re­ferred ques­tions to the U.S. agency.

After vis­it­ing Tornillo last month, Rep. Judy Chu, DCalif., and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., pro­posed leg­is­la­tion to close such mas­sive emer­gency shel­ters, in­clud­ing a second fa­cil­ity in Homestead, Fla. They noted that the shel­ters are ex­empted from state child­care fa­cil­ity li­cens­ing re­quire­ments and that staff at Tornillo had not un­der­gone FBI back­ground checks.

“This makes chil­dren vul­ner­a­ble to abuse, poses se­ri­ous de­vel­op­men­tal chal­lenges, and risks re­trau­ma­tiz­ing them,” Chu wrote in a state­ment. “Worst of all, this is a choice that was made by this ad­min­is­tra­tion. Un­ac­com­pa­nied chil­dren have been and can be re­leased to loved ones or fam­ily who will look after their safety and well-be­ing. In­stead, Trump is fo­ment­ing xeno­pho­bia.”

The fa­cil­ity was crit­i­cized in a Health and Hu­man Ser­vices in­spec­tor gen­eral’s re­port last year over the lack of re­quired FBI fin­ger­print back­ground checks. The Nov. 27 re­port also said the Tornillo fa­cil­ity did not em­ploy enough clin­i­cians to pro­vide ad­e­quate men­tal health care for the chil­dren held there.

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