Camp for mi­grant teens cleared out

The Columbus Dispatch - - Morningstarters - By Maria Sac­chetti

WASH­ING­TON — The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has re­moved all teenagers from a mas­sive Texas tent camp for un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­grant teens caught cross­ing the U.s.-mex­ico bor­der, weeks af­ter a fed­eral watch­dog warned about “se­ri­ous safety and health” con­cerns at the fa­cil­ity.

Of­fi­cials said about 5,500 of the 6,200 Cen­tral Amer­i­can teens who cy­cled through the Tornillo camp since June have been re­leased to a par­ent or guardian in the United States to await a de­ci­sion in their im­mi­gra­tion cases. About 700 were trans­ferred to other facilities over­seen by the U.S. De­part­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices.

“As of this week­end the last group of un­ac­com­pa­nied alien chil­dren will have been trans­ferred or dis­charged from the Tornillo” fa­cil­ity, Lynn John­son, as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of HHS’S Ad­min­is­tra­tion for Chil­dren and Fam­i­lies, said in a state­ment.

She said the gov­ern­ment is still in the process of dis­man­tling the con­tro­ver­sial camp, which is slated to close this month. And she de­fended the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­ci­sion to open the emer­gency out­post as a “nec­es­sary” step to care for hun­dreds of mi­nors cross­ing the bor­der daily.

Law­mak­ers and oth­ers who have crit­i­cized the camp cheered its im­pend­ing clo­sure Fri­day and said the gov­ern­ment should have moved faster to re­lease its oc­cu­pants.

“This tent city should never have stood in the first place but it is wel­come news that it will be gone,” U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, a Repub­li­can who rep­re­sents a Texas bor­der re­gion, tweeted Fri­day af­ter the last teenager left the camp.

For­mer Con­gress­man Beto O’rourke, an El Paso Demo­crat who pres­sured HHS to close the fa­cil­ity, tweeted that the clos­ing was “good for these kids and their fam­i­lies.”

Three weeks ago, the camp held 2,800 teens. Of these, Ramos said 300 were trans­ferred to other facilities, and the rest were re­leased to spon­sors, usu­ally rel­a­tives, who had been vet­ted by the gov­ern­ment.

Tornillo ini­tially opened with 30 days’ fund­ing on a sprawl­ing patch of land out­side of El Paso and swelled over the next seven months into a 120-tent camp with room for 3,800 peo­ple.

As the num­ber of mi­grant chil­dren in gov­ern­ment cus­tody reached a record high late last year, HHS was slated to pay up to $367.9 mil­lion be­tween mid-septem­ber and De­cem­ber to op­er­ate the shel­ter, ac­cord­ing to fed­eral records. Of­fi­cials said teens spent an av­er­age of 36 days at the fa­cil­ity.

In Novem­ber, HHS In­spec­tor Gen­eral Daniel Levin­son warned of “sig­nif­i­cant vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties” at the Tornillo camp, in­clud­ing in­ad­e­quate crim­i­nal back­ground checks for staff mem­bers.

Ad­vo­cates for im­mi­grants noted that the gov­ern­ment is still hold­ing teens in other large shel­ters, such as a Homestead, Flor­ida, fa­cil­ity that is adding 1,000 new beds for a to­tal of 2,350.

BCFS, the San An­to­nio non­profit that runs the Texas camp, con­firmed that the camp was empty Fri­day but had no ad­di­tional com­ment.

U.S. Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion ap­pre­hended more than 50,000 un­ac­com­pa­nied child mi­grants last fis­cal year, up from 41,435 the year be­fore.

Fed­eral law re­quires Bor­der Pa­trol agents to quickly turn over un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nors to one of more than 100 shel­ters over­seen by HHS’ Ad­min­is­tra­tion for Chil­dren and Fam­i­lies, where they wait for spon­sors to be ap­proved.

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