U.S. lawmaker: All migrant teens transferred out of Tornillo tent camp

The Trump administration has removed all teenagers from a giant tent camp for underage migrants on the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, former congressman Beto O’Rourke and Rep. Will Hurd said Friday, weeks after a federal watchdog warned the facility had “serious safety and health” concerns.

U.S. Health and Human Services had no immediate comment. A day earlier, the government said 850 minors remained at the desert facility in Tornillo as of this week but would be released to sponsors or sent to other facilities by the end of January.

“BREAKING: I just talked with the management at the Tornillo facility – the last kid just left. This tent city should never have stood in the first place but it is welcome news that it will be gone,” Hurd, a Texas Republican who represents a swath of the U.S. side of the Mexican border, said in a tweet.

O’Rourke, an El Paso Democrat who pressured HHS to close the facility, also tweeted: “The last child has left Tornillo.

“It’s good for these kids and their families. And it shows the power of people who showed up for them and shared with the rest of the country that we were locking up immigrant kids for months at a time. You made this happen.”

Three weeks ago, the camp held 2,800 teens.

“Our goal is to close the temporary unaccompanied alien children program facility in Tornillo as quickly but as safely as possible,” Kenneth Wolfe, spokesman for the HHS agency that cares for unaccompanied minors, said in a statement Thursday.

Nearly 6,200 minors have cycled through Tornillo since the camp opened in June on a dry, sprawling patch of borderland outside of El Paso. The government says teens spent an average of 36 days at the facility.

Tornillo initially opened with 30 days’ funding 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.

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

Advocates for immigrants cheered reports that Tornillo is closing, but worried that the government is still holding teens in large emergency shelters, such as a Homestead, Fla., facility that is adding 1,000 new beds, for a total of 2,350.

Taylor Levy, legal coordinator at Annunciation House, an El Paso nonprofit that aids migrants, said Tornillo was “much too large” to house teenagers.

Jonathan Ryan, CEO and president of Raices, a Texas-based organization that offers legal aid to migrants, said the tent city was a “monstrosity of an idea.”

BCFS, a San Antonio nonprofit that runs the camp, did not respond to requests for comment. The nonprofit specializes in providing emergency housing after natural disasters; some of the tents at Tornillo had sheltered people left homeless by Hurricane Harvey.

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’s Administration for Children and Families. They stay there until case workers place the children with a parent or guardian to await a decision on whether they can stay in the United States.

But critics said HHS shelter space also was tight because of new background-check requirements that made it more difficult to find and vet sponsors for the children.

Last year the Trump administration mandated that all residents of a would-be sponsor’s household submit fingerprints to the FBI. The government also said HHS could share information about potential sponsors with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which had not been done in the past.

The new policies left some potential sponsors reluctant to come forward, or unable to convince their housemates to provide fingerprints, because they feared deportation, advocates said. Government shelters swelled to more than 14,600 children, up from 9,200 when President Trump took office two years ago.

HHS eased the fingerprinting requirement last month, saying it generally did not identify new threats to children’s welfare. By this week, Wolfe said the number of minors in custody had fallen to about 11,400.

Read more: Trump eyes disaster money, emergency declaration to build border wall Number of migrant youths held by government reaches record high Stricter vetting for migrant youth means taxpayers pay more, as parents wait