Immigrant Teens Are Stuck In An Expanding Tent City In Texas

The facility in Tornillo, Texas, was supposed to be a temporary solution for teens who cross the southern border. But the tent city has only grown larger.

TORNILLO, Texas — Having immigrant teens live in the “tent city” in Tornillo, Texas, was always supposed to be a temporary solution, after the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant families at the border meant the government didn’t have enough beds in the shelter system.

It opened in June, and the contractor running the site had a 30-day contract. At that time, 326 children were being housed there.

But four months after its opening, the shelter 30 miles outside of El Paso has grown into a bustling town. It now holds nearly five times its initial population — roughly 1,500 teens — and its contract has been extended until at least Dec. 31.

The tent city’s purpose has changed as well. Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services, the federal agency responsible for the care of unaccompanied child immigrants, say none of the teens currently housed there were detained as a result of family separations. It now holds immigrant children who crossed the border without an adult, in theory as a last stage of their stay in the vast US shelter bureaucracy.

And as the shelter expands, administrative issues have cropped up concerning legal representation and FBI background checks — extending many teens’ stays longer than what HHS says is the average.

Tornillo now has a new football field, math and English classes, and more than 100 tent structures. Staffers zipped around in carts between dozens of portable offices offering mental health services, emergency medical care, legal services, and even a barber. A huge emergency tent has been turned into a sleeping hall for 300 teenage girls, decorated with paper chains and lanterns.

BuzzFeed News toured the Tornillo facility for the second time on Friday, as part of a group of reporters. Like the first and only other tour, instructions were strict. No photographs or recording devices were allowed, and reporters were not permitted to use the names of employees or speak with the teens living at the camp — though HHS was more lenient on the last rule during Friday’s tour. The only photos were provided by the government.

By Amber Jamieson for BUZZ FEED NEWS
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