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Federal Government To Greatly Expand Tornillo Shelter For Unaccompanied Minors

Mike Blake/Reuters
Staff lead immigrant children between tents at a detention facility next to the Mexican border in Tornillo in June.

The immigration detention center at Tornillo used to hold undocumented immigrant minors will remain open through the end of the year, a government spokesperson said Tuesday.

The decision marks the third time the facility's operations have been extended since it opened in June, and is necessary due to the ongoing arrival of unaccompanied immigrant minors to this country, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said in an email. The extension is not in response to President Donald Trump’s former “zero tolerance” policy that separated children from their parents or guardians, which has been placed on hold after a national uproar.

The facility will also expand to 3,800 beds, spokesperson Kenneth Wolfe said. Earlier this summer, the facility reportedly had around 400 beds.

“These temporary beds will be brought online incrementally as needed. We will continue to assess the need for this temporary shelter at Tornillo Land Port of Entry in Tornillo, Texas, based on the projected need for beds and current capacity of the program,” he said.

The facility, which critics have called a “tent city,” was opened after the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy. It has mainly housed undocumented immigrant children who came to the country on their own, though there have been some separated minors detained there. Wolfe said that San Antonio-based BCFS Health and Human Services will continue operating the facility.

Critics decried the decision to keep it open and expand capacity.

“This administration has resorted to putting kids in tents rather than pushing for comprehensive immigration reform while Congress sits complicit with inaction," said state Rep. César Blanco, D-El Paso, who called on Texas Republicans in Congress to "show courage" and be more vocal on the issue. "It’s immoral and un American."

Last month, the facility held 170 undocumented minors, the majority from Central America. The increase of thousands more beds means the Trump administration is likely preparing for the prolonged detention of more minors, state Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-Clint, told the Tribune.

Immigrant rights groups have asserted all year that the administration has created unnecessary barriers for families or sponsors willing to take in the unaccompanied minors. After the family separation crisis, critics complained that some families were made to undergo more vetting than others.

“It is a result of the policy the administration has implemented, for example the stricter rules when it comes to connecting children to family members once they’re here,” Gonzalez, whose district includes Tornillo, said. “It’s created a backlog and people getting stuck in it.”

The administration also announced last week plans to circumvent current legal settlement that mandates minor children cannot be detained for more than 20 days. The agreement, reached in 1997 and called the Flores agreement, is a magnet that encourages illegal crossings, the administration has said.

Customs and Border Patrol statistics show the number of unaccompanied minor apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol has decreased over the summer months. In July about 3,900 unaccompanied minors were apprehended or turned themselves in on the country's southwest border. That’s a dip from about 5,100 in June and about 6,380 in May.

Statistics for August haven’t been released, but a spokesperson in the Rio Grande Valley said the past few weeks have been a busy one for that Border Patrol sector, which is historically the most active in the country. On Tuesday morning, agents in the sector apprehended 131 undocumented immigrants in two separate instances within 24 hours, including 45 family units and 21 unaccompanied children, a spokesperson said.


From The Texas Tribune

Julian Aguilar covered the 81st legislative session for the Rio Grande Guardian. Previously, he reported from the border for the Laredo Morning Times. A native of El Paso, he has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Texas and a master's degree in journalism from the Frank W. Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism at the University of North Texas.
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