Desert detention camp for migrant kids still growing
By GARANCE BURKE AND MARTHA MENDOZA
Tuesday, November 27
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 Monday, 2,349 largely 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 alone.
Rising from the cotton fields and dusty roads not far from the dark fence marking the border between the U.S. and Mexico, 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 than Tornillo’s tent city than in all but one of the nation’s 204 federal prisons, yet construction here continues.
The camp’s population may grow even more if members of the migrant caravans castigated by President Trump enter the U.S. Federal officials have said they may fly teens from the caravans 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.
An Associated Press investigation has found that the camp’s rapid growth has created problems, including:
— Costs appear to be soaring more than 50 percent higher than the government has disclosed: What began as an emergency, 30-day shelter has transformed into a vast tent city that could cost taxpayers more than $430 million.
— The government is allowing the nonprofit running the tent city to sidestep mental health care requirements: Under federal policy, migrant youth shelters generally must have one mental health clinician for every 12 kids, but shelter officials told AP the facility has just one mental health clinician for every 50 kids.
— Federal plans to close Tornillo by New Years’ Eve will be nearly impossible to meet: There aren’t 2,300 extra beds in other facilities. A contract obtained by AP shows the project could continue into 2020 and planned closures have already been extended three times since this summer.
Tornillo’s teens were not separated from their families at the border this summer, but they’re held there because federal immigration policies have resulted in the detention of a record 14,000 migrant children, filling shelter beds around the country to capacity. Almost all came on their own from Central America hoping to join family members in the United States.
Some children have been detained at Tornillo since the tent camp opened in June. As the population inside the tall wire fences swells, and as some children stay there longer, the young detainees’ anguish has deepened.
“The few times they let me call my mom I would tell her that one day I would be free, but really I felt like I would be there for the rest of my life,” a 17-year-old from Honduras who was held at Tornillo earlier this year told 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.”
After his family passed extensive background checks, the teen was recently released to them, but said he still has nightmares he’s back inside. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal from immigration authorities.
Confining and caring for so many children is a challenge. By day, minders walk the teen detainees to their meals, showers and recreation on the arid plot of land guarded by multiple levels of security. At night the area around the camp, that’s grown from a few dozen to more than 150 tents, is secured and lit up by flood lights.
The nonprofit social service agency contracted to run Tornillo says it is proud of its work. It says it is operating the facility with the same precision and care used for shelters put up after natural disasters.
“We don’t have anything to hide. This is an exceptionally run operation,” said Krista Piferrer, a spokeswoman for BCFS Health and Human Services, a faith-based organization that runs Tornillo. “This isn’t our first rodeo.”
She said they have no guidance from the Trump administration regarding what will happen after Dec. 31.
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Mark Weber, said no decisions have been made about whether Tornillo will close by year’s end as scheduled.
“Whatever it is we decide to do, in the very near future, we’ll do a public notice about that,” he said.
More than 50 years of research show institutionalizing young people is traumatizing, with harmful impacts on their psyche and life trajectories, prompting policymakers to seek alternatives to locking up children, said Naomi Smoot, executive director of the nonprofit Coalition for Juvenile Justice.
“Hearing that more than 2,000 kids are in any kind of detention facility is alarming to me,” she said. “That’s not where kids should be around the holidays, particular when they haven’t broken the law.”
Most of the children locked inside Tornillo are never charged with a crime; crossing illegally into the U.S. is a civil offense. By law, migrant children traveling alone into the U.S. must be sent to a government shelter where they stay until they can be united with relatives or other sponsors while awaiting immigration court hearings. Migrant children’s time in government custody has grown longer this year, in part due to the Trump administration’s new requirements for deep background checks on sponsors who agree to take in young immigrants.
Tornillo currently has 3,800 beds for the teens, with 1,400 of those on reserve.
Annunciation House director Ruben Garcia, whose El Paso nonprofit works with recent immigrants, said Tornillo is far more secretive than other government shelters, where he and his staff are routinely allowed inside. At Tornillo workers must sign non-disclosure agreements and visitors are rarely allowed.
“What’s happening inside? Nobody knows. They cannot speak about what they see,” he said. “We’ve been doing this work for 20 years and we’ve never seen anything like this.”
BCFS says the shelter at Tornillo has actually had more media, elected officials, advocacy organizations, child welfare experts and attorneys tour the site than any other operation for migrant children run by HHS. The nonprofit said confidentiality agreements are standard, to protect the privacy and rights of clients and those served.
‘COUNTING THE DAYS’
In June, as migrant child detention centers overflowed, HHS announced it was opening a rapidly built tent city at Tornillo, with the idea that most kids would only stay a few days. But within the week there was talk of making a detention camp 10 times as big.
Because the detention camp is on federal property — part of a large U.S. Customs and Border facility — it is not subject to state licensing requirements.
BCFS, a San Antonio nonprofit, runs Tornillo as it operates evacuation centers for hurricanes: there’s food, first aid, activities and rows of bunk beds, but no normal-life activities for stressed-out teens, like formal school or unsupervised stretches.
Federal officials have said repeatedly that only children without special needs were being sent to Tornillo. But facility administrators recently acknowledged to care providers that the Tornillo detainees included children with serious mental health issues who needed to be transferred out to facilities in El Paso in the coming days, according to a person with knowledge of the discussion. The person spoke on a condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk publicly about discussions.
BCFS confirmed that the current ratio of mental-health clinicians to children is 1 to 50, and said that each child sees a mental health specialist every day.
“When a child is found to have a mental health need that cannot be best provided for at Tornillo, a request is made to HHS to transfer the child to a more appropriate facility,” said Piferrer.
Dr. Ryan Matlow, a Stanford clinical psychologist whose work addresses the impact of early life stress, recently interviewed teens at Tornillo. He questions the facility’s capacity to identify kids with special mental health needs given the large number of children and their tendency to suppress emotional distress in order to cope.
“The kids are able to get by in there, but the more time they spend in these sorts of facilities, the greater the consequences, especially when it comes to their emotional and psychological well-being,” said Matlow. “It’s a dangerous and harmful system for kids to be caught in.”
Camilo Perez-Bustillo, who served as a Spanish-language interpreter at the camp earlier this month, said most of the two dozen children he met showed signs of depression and anxiety over when, or whether, they would be released. About two thirds are boys, and half of the teens are Guatemalan. There are no on-site interpreters for teens of indigenous origin who speak Spanish as a second language.
“They are all counting the days they are inside the way prisoners do,” said Perez-Bustillo, who is advocacy director at the nonprofit Hope Border Institute. “Many of the kids have the sense of being suspended, and anxiousness about how much longer they will be held there.”
Dr. Elizabeth Carll, a teen and trauma specialist who heads the American Psychological Association’s Refugee Mental Health resource network, said institutionalizing so many teens in a geographically remote place makes it harder to recruit qualified clinicians.
“You have to find people who are licensed, who are experts in trauma, who speak Spanish and have worked with teens,” she said. “Where would you find all these qualified professionals?”
Making things worse, Carll said migrant youth are likely to have higher emotional needs after going through hardship, enduring the journey north and being held in detention. They would do better if placed with trained, bilingual foster families, she said.
One shy 16-year-old from Honduras held at Tornillo told an AP reporter as she awaited her immigration court hearing that she was worried that it was taking so long to reunite her with family in Pennsylvania.
“I’m getting tired of waiting because I’ve been there three months,” said the girl, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution by staffers who were monitoring her and other Tornillo detainees. “I’m trying to keep the faith that I will be liberated soon.”
$1,200 PER NIGHT
For each night each child spends at Tornillo, taxpayers spend up to $1,200 to pay the direct care workers, cooks, cleaners, teachers and emergency services workers, according to information staff at two congressional offices said they were provided on a recent visit. That’s well above the $775 officials have publicly disclosed, and close to five times more than a typical youth migrant shelter costs.
BCFS did not dispute the cost, but said on average, actual costs are closer to $750 a day, which would bring current operations to more than $12 million a week.
The costs at Tornillo are so high because everything — water, sewage, food, staff and detainees — must be trucked in and out of the remote site. Every few hours, two teams fill up 2,000-gallon tanks of water from a hydrant outside the facility, then drive them back through the fences. Each day, 35,000 gallons of diesel are trucked in as well, to run massive generators that power air conditioners in blazing hot summers and heaters on frigid winter nights.
The teens can play soccer during closely watched recreation periods. They are given yarn to pass the time making brightly colored bracelets and scarves. There aren’t regular classes, but teens have textbooks and workbooks.
Piferrer said BCFS was not charging the government for the tents, fire trucks and ambulance on site.
“We are not going to charge for resources that we already own,” she said. “Everything that is being provided has been directed by the federal government to be provided.”
Scant details about how those funds are spent motivated New York-based software developer Josh Rubin to set up residence in an RV just outside the gates, where he keeps a vigil on the vehicles going in and out. In recent weeks, he said, he has spotted new trends: construction trucks moving equipment in to build another tent, a vehicle carrying heaters, more buses with tinted windows taking children to immigration court.
Staffers are transported to the camp from motels near the El Paso airport, where the tour buses take pains to park on side roads, far from view. On a recent evening outside the Hawthorn Suites hotel, Tornillo workers filed off to bed in the darkness, many talking of feeling sick or exhausted.
Twice a day, the desolate stretch of highway outside Tornillo comes alive as more than a dozen tour buses pull up. Bells sound, lights flash. Workers walk in two by two, wearing khaki pants, neon jackets and backpacks, some wrapped in scarves to guard against the cool desert air.
Many days, Rubin is there alone, holding up a sign saying “Free Them” at the tent city’s entrance. Sometimes the train rumbles by, or cotton drifts in the wind.
Protests began at Tornillo almost as soon as it opened. State and federal elected officials joined local activists and Hollywood stars deriding the Trump administration’s immigration policies. But public attention turned elsewhere, and now demonstrations are rare.
On a recent afternoon, a group of about 60 activists including rabbis from Ann Arbor, Michigan and students from a local Catholic girls’ school assembled to pray for the teens’ release and sang a throaty version of “Let My People Go.”
After a Department of Homeland Security official blocked them, the group ventured through a fence onto a private dirt road behind the facility. A group of teen boys could be seen across marshland, and a hole in the wire fence had been visibly patched.
“You are not alone!” the activists cried out in Spanish to the youth being led between tents. Some of the teens waved back. One protester wiped away a tear as another banged on a plastic drum, calling out “We love you! We miss you!”
Dalila Reynoso-Gonzalez, a program director for the Methodist immigration advocacy group Justice for our Neighbors of East Texas, said she was moved to demonstrate at Tornillo after helping an immigrant father reunite with his son held there. The boy told her stories of a stark and lonely place and spoke of isolation, fear, disorientation.
He still has a foil blanket issued to him when he first was taken into custody, she said.
“It’s really heavy on my heart,” said Reynoso-Gonzalez. “How did we get to this place, why do we have so many children out there?”
Caravan migrants explore options after Tijuana border clash
By CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN
Tuesday, November 27
TIJUANA, Mexico (AP) — Many among the more than 5,000 Central American migrants in Tijuana were urgently exploring their options amid a growing feeling that they had little hope of making successful asylum bids in the United States or of crossing the border illegally.
Most were dispirited on Monday, a day after U.S. agents fired tear gas into Mexico to turn back some migrants who had breached the border. They saw the clash and official response as hurting their chances of reaching the U.S.
There was a steady line outside a shelter at a tent housing the International Organization for Migration, where officials were offering assistance for those who wanted to return to their home countries.
Officials also reported more interest from migrants wanting to start the process staying in Mexico. A job fair matching migrants with openings in Baja California saw a growing number of inquiries.
“What happened yesterday harms all of us,” Oscar Leonel Mina, a 22-year-old father from San Salvador, El Salvador, said about Sunday’s border clash.
Mina and his wife and their toddler daughter avoided the march and were glad they did after hearing others recount what unfolded, he said as he sat in the doorway of his family’s tent at Tijuana sports complex using a toothbrush to clean the fine dust that coats everything off his sneakers.
At the tent next door, 23-year-old Brandon Castillo of Santa Rosa, Guatemala chimed in that “they say it was the whole caravan, but it wasn’t the whole caravan.”
The events made Mina rethink his family’s plan of making it to the U.S. He says he’s heard people talk of Rosarito, a beach town popular with U.S. tourists about a 40-minute drive south of Tijuana.
There “you can earn money and live well” if you’re willing to work, he said. He set a goal of trying to move his family out of the shelter in another week.
Mexican security forces stepped up their presence at the complex where thousands from the migrant caravan have been sheltered, apparently seeking to avoid a repeat of Sunday’s ugly scene.
Tijuana public safety secretary Marco Antonio Sotomayor Amezcua said in a news conference that Mexican police would be prudent in their use of force, but “we have to guard at all cost that the border posts are not closed again.”
Sotomayor said he hopes migrants who had thought of entering the U.S. illegally learned from Sunday’s events that that won’t be possible.
Migrants hoping to apply for asylum in the United States must put their names on a waiting list that already had some 3,000 people on it before the caravan arrived in Tijuana. With U.S. officials processing fewer than 100 claims a day, the wait time for the recent arrivals stands to take months.
That has instilled a sense of desperation among many after their grueling trek from Central America. Sunday’s incident began after hundreds marched to the border to try to call attention to their plight. Some attempted to get through fencing and wire separating the countries, prompting volleys of stinging gas.
Cindy Martinez of San Vicente, El Salvador, said she had been about to cross the concertina wire to the U.S. side when the tear gas was launched. She estimated about 20 people had already passed in front of her, and parents begged agents not to unleash the gas because there were young children present.
“I see it as impossible for them to want to give us asylum,” she said. “Because of the words that President Donald Trump has said, I think this is impossible.”
Martinez, 28, said she was now considering getting work in Tijuana.
Mexico’s National Migration Institute reported that 98 migrants were being deported after trying to breach the U.S. border. The country’s Interior Department said about 500 people attempted to rush the border, while U.S. authorities put the number at 1,000.
Baja California state Gov. Francisco Vega said almost 9,000 migrants were in his state — mostly in Tijuana, with a smaller number in Mexicali — and called it “an issue of national security.” Vega issued a public appeal to Mexico’s federal government to take over responsibility for sheltering the migrants and deport any who break the law.
Alex Castillo carried a red bedroll slung over his shoulder as he walked away from the Tijuana shelter on Monday, saying he would head to the industrial city of Monterrey to look for work and try to cross into the United States next year.
The 35-year-old electrician from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, said he wasn’t at the border clash. He heard about it from others and decided to leave “to avoiding getting beaten.”
Opinion: Hispanic Voters Demand Action on Health Care Access
By Hector Barreto
This year’s midterm election saw an unprecedented number of Hispanic-Americans casting ballots, including many new voters. Pew Research found that a quarter of all Hispanic voters said they were voting for the first time.
While many pundits and policymakers may be questioning the reason for this increase in turnout, the answer seems clear. Hispanic voters, like so many Americans, are being driven by concerns about the high cost of health care and access to life-saving preventive services.
This is a problem that takes many forms. But for Hispanic-Americans, there is no single health issue more pressing than heart disease and stroke — the No. 1 cause of death of U.S. Hispanics. The newly elected 116th Congress has an opportunity and a responsibility to work together to address this problem.
Among Hispanic adults age 20 and older, 48 percent of men and 32 percent of women have cardiovascular disease. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death for both Hispanic women and men, 28 percent and 27 percent of total deaths respectively, beating out cancer by several points. Treatment, which would address some of the abnormal numbers, remains a hurdle often for various reasons including language barriers, awareness and pricing.
According to the American Heart Association, Spanish-speaking Hispanics are less likely to know or understand the symptoms of stroke compared to their English-speaking counterparts. Over a third of U.S. Latinos are Spanish-dominant, which means the language barrier presents a problem for health organizations, associations and education groups whose marketing and educational campaigns, primarily in English, are intended to help bridge the information gap between the public and the medical community.
Paired with the language barrier is the lack of awareness. In a 2009-2012 study by National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, rates of high-blood pressure awareness were lowest among Hispanics, often below the national average. The survey found the same conclusion for treatment awareness as well as methods to control high blood pressure. A quick internet search of health or medical associations who publish material in Spanish or target Latinos primarily, yields poor results.
Access to information is not the only problem Hispanics face in the fight to reduce cardiovascular disease; access to treatment remains a problem as well.
U.S. health care costs surpassed $10,000 a year per person in 2016, a number that continues to rise today. Once information reaches the right ears — and is in the right language — the last barrier to help combat the alarming rates of the disease is cost. To help lower cost, the government must step aside and let the free-market do what it has done well historically.
MarketWatch reported recently that Amgen announced an immediate 60% cut in the price of its innovative anti-cholesterol medicine, Repatha. The move made headlines, surprising many in the medical community. Yet the company’s move to reduce the price of a medicine, which studies prove help reduce cardiovascular disease, is likely to benefit U.S. Hispanics. Out-of-pocket medical expenses remain a burden, affordable medicine is a sure way to help ease that burden. This move addresses one part of the problem, and we now need to ensure that health insurance companies start to pass on some of these savings to patients.
As the discussion about health care reform continues to make headlines, leaders and lawmakers must understand the hurdles many Latinos face to be better focus on the achievable goal of bringing down costs for everyone.
At the Latino Coalition, we believe a targeted legislative approach, and not a sweeping reform that takes us nowhere, is the right way to address the problems. Democrats and Republicans are going to have to find ways work together, and policies that help lower costs for consumers are exactly the smart and targeted solutions that deserve bipartisan support.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Hector V. Barreto is chairman The Latino Coalition, one of the largest Latino advocacy groups in the nation. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.