A delegation of senators and members of Congress toured the Tornillo detention facility over the weekend. (Mallory Falk / KRWG)
News last week that a seven-year-old Guatemalan girl died shortly after being apprehended by U.S. Customs and Border Protection has brought the nation’s focus back to the U.S.-Mexico border. That includes the tent city in Tornillo, Texas: a facility the federal government erected in June to house migrant children who recently crossed the border. The Tornillo site was supposed to be temporary, but it’s continued to expand. Over the weekend, a congressional delegation toured the site and called on the government to shut it down.
Five lawmakers from as many states spent about an hour in the tent facility, poking their heads into sleeping quarters and seeing where the children housed here eat and play soccer. But access ended there.
Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii addressed the press and a few dozen protestors immediately after the tour.
“We wanted to talk with the young people here,” she said. “And when I asked why we couldn’t talk to them I was told that we shouldn’t interrupt their schedules. There’s probably a word for that. It’s called BS.”
Lawmakers who toured the Tornillo facility said they were told it currently houses about 2,700 children, ages 13-17. That’s up from a few hundred when the facility opened in June. And, as of November, it’s cost taxpayers $144 million.
“This is a great deal for the contractor, a terrible deal for the kids who are trapped inside, and an awful deal for the U.S. taxpayer,” said Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke, who led the delegation’s Tornillo visit.
“The contractor himself said that this is no permanent place for kids,” O’Rourke said. “These are soft-sided tents that are meant for disaster recovery.”
Yet some children have now spent nearly half a year living in these tents.
“But they could be staying at the Ritz Carlton and it wouldn’t be right if they weren’t with their families,” said O’Rourke.
So why have some children been stuck there for so long, and why does the facility keep expanding? Sen. Hirono blames a fingerprint policy that went into effect last summer. When a sponsor steps forward to take in a migrant child, the government now fingerprints everyone in that sponsor’s house — and shares the information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
“That is doing two things,” Hirono said. “One, it’s creating tremendous delays in approving these sponsors. But the second thing is, I think it has a chilling effect on sponsors coming forward. Because this information – and many of the sponsors are undocumented – is shared with ICE. And what ICE does is deport people.”
Between July and November, ICE arrested 170 undocumented immigrants who came forward to sponsor children; the vast majority had no criminal record.
Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, also took part in the tour. He said the fingerprinting policy doesn’t just create a sense of fear, it creates a bottleneck for families who do come forward.
Merkely said according to BCFS, the contractor running the Tornillo facility, “many of these kids have a sponsor who has already gone through the background checks. Thirteen hundred. For some reason in the bureaucracy of the Trump administration, they are slow-walking completing that work, leaving these kids stranded here.
Congressman O’Rourke said the contractor running the encampment could put pressure on the Trump administration to end this policy. BCFS, a San Antonio-based nonprofit, has a contract with the federal government through December 31.
“I’ve asked them not to renew the contract unless ICE does away with the fingerprint background checks that are then used to deport people from mixed-immigration status families,” O’Rourke said.
Other lawmakers on the tour said they would push for more oversight of Tornillo, by calling for a congressional hearing on conditions at the facility and supporting a bill that would grant lawmakers access to migrant shelters on 24 hour’s notice.
O’Rourke urged citizens to keep raising the alarm.
“The public pressure that you brought to bear after Father’s Day, that ended the practice of family separation, we need that same pressure again brought to bear on this administration to close down Tornillo,” he said.
For now, though, it doesn’t look like the number of kids living here will shrink anytime soon. Some community members plan to sing Christmas carols outside the Tornillo facility next week. They hope their voices carry, so the children inside can hear them.