TORNILLO, Texas (AP) — The Trump administration announced in June it would open a temporary shelter for up to 360 migrant children in this isolated corner of the Texas desert. Less than six months later, the facility has expanded into a detention camp holding thousands of teenagers —
and it shows every sign of becoming more permanent.
By Tuesday, 2,324 main-ly Central American boys and girls between the ages of 13 and 17 were sleeping inside the highly guarded facility in rows of bunk beds in canvas tents, some of which once housed first responders to Hurricane Harvey. More than 1,300 teens have arrived since the end of October.
Rising from the cotton fields and dusty roads not far from the fence marking the U.S.-Mexico border, the camp has rows of beige tents and golf carts that ferry staffers carrying walkie-talkies. Teens with identical haircuts and government-issued shirts and pants can be seen walking single file from tent to tent, flanked by staff at the front and back.
More people are detained in Tornillo’s tent city than in all but one of the nation’s 204 federal prisons, and construction continues.
None of the 2,100 staff are going through rigorous FBI fingerprint background checks, according to a government watchdog memo published Tuesday. “Instead, Tornillo is using checks conducted by a private contractor that has access to less comprehensive data, thereby heightening the risk that an individual with a criminal history could have direct access to children,” the memo says.
Federal plans to close Tornillo by Dec. 31 may be impossible to meet. There aren’t 2,300 extra beds in other facilities, and a contract obtained by the AP shows the project could continue into 2020. .
The teens at Tornillo were not separated from their families at the border. Almost all came on their own hoping to join family members in the U.S.
The camp’s population may grow even more if migrants in the caravans castigated by President Donald Trump enter the U.S. Federal officials have said they may fly caravan teens who arrive in San Diego directly to El Paso, then bus them to Tornillo, according to a nonprofit social service provider who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to publicly discuss the matter.
As the camp population swells, young detainees’ anguish has deepened.
“The few times they let me call my mom I would tell her that one day I will be free, but I felt like I would be there for the rest of my life,” a 17-year-old Honduran who was held at Tornillo earlier this year told the AP. “I feel so bad for the kids who are still there. What if they have to spend Christmas there? They need a hug, and nobody is allowed to hug there.”