Hundreds of migrant children have in recent weeks been transferred from government-contracted shelters and foster homes to a tent city in the harsh Texas desert, the New York Times reported Sunday. The Times said 1,600 children and counting had been transferred from shelters across the country to South Texas.
The standards at the Tornillo, Texas “tent city” facility are much different that those at the children’s previous facilities, which are required to meet state regulations. They don’t attend school in Tornillo, for example, and many children sleep in the same room, rather than being divided up into smaller handfuls.
The shift to Tornillo, the capacity of which was recently expanded nearly tenfold, is the result of a massive spike in migrant children in the government’s custody compared to years past. The Times reported earlier this month that there were 12,800 migrant children in the government’s custody, up from 2,400 in May of last year. On Sunday, the Times counted more than 13,000 such children.
Part of that spike came from the Trump administration’s family separation policy, which continues to keep hundreds of children from their parents.
In addition, however, the amount of time “unaccompanied” children — those who truly came to the border without family, in addition to those separated from family — spend government custody has almost doubled.
That’s partially the result of a months-old Trump administration policy change requiring every adult living in a household to which an unaccompanied minor may be released to submit their fingerprints to the government for a background check.
Because most of these potential sponsors and members of their households are undocumented — and because immigration enforcement officials openly admit to using the fingerprint data to arrest and deport otherwise law-abiding people — children are spending more time in the government’s custody.
In a phone call with reporters in May, a Trump administration official implied it was preferable to leave children in government custody than to release them to undocumented family members.
“It is common to use influx shelters as done on military bases in the past, and the intent is to use these temporary facilities only as long as needed,” a spokeswoman for the Health and Human Services Department told the Times for its story Sunday. HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement oversees the custody of migrant children.
HHS has shifted hundreds of millions of dollars to ORR, and from within that office, in order to accommodate what HHS Secretary Alex Azar recently described to a Democratic member of Congress as the “steadily” increasing number of “unaccompanied alien children” in ORR care.
“Based on this growth pattern, and an increased length of time needed to safely release unaccompanied alien children to sponsors, HHS is preparing for the trend of high capacity to continue,” Azar wrote to Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), in a letter DeLauro’s office shared with TPM.
Unnamed workers in shelters for migrant children told the Times about the “standard practice” for shuffling kids from their current facilities to the Tornillo “tent city”: late at night and with little advance notice, so as to minimize opportunities for escape.