/Huge migrant teen detention camp in Texas shutting down

Huge migrant teen detention camp in Texas shutting down

TORNILLO, Texas (AP) — The nonprofit running what once was the largest U.S. detention camp housing migrant teenagers said the last children left the facility Friday.

The tent city in Tornillo, Texas, is shutting down, and all tents and equipment will be removed from the site by the end of January, said Krista Piferrer, spokeswoman of BCFS Health and Human Services.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the care of migrant children, said all the children who were held at Tornillo have been either released to an appropriate sponsor or transferred to other shelters.

“Though Tornillo is on a path toward closure, influx facilities like Tornillo are necessary,” said Lynn Johnson, an assistant secretary at the department, referring to the agency’s need to expand and contract its shelter capacity depending on the number of children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

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‘Tent city’ for immigrant children separated from parents in Texas

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Immigrant children, many of whom have been separated from their parents under a new “zero tolerance” policy by the Trump administration, are being housed in tents next to the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas, U.S. June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Raymondville, UNITED STATES: A futuristic USD 65 million tent city designed to hold about 2,000 illegal immigrants is pictured 10 April 2006 in Raymondville, Texas. The newly-constructed barbed-wire enclosed camp in the Rio Grande Valley will hold illegal immigrants for weeks to years until they can be returned to their home countires by US officials. AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

Immigrant children, many of whom have been separated from their parents under a new “zero tolerance” policy by the Trump administration, are shown walking in single file between tents in their compound next to the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas, U.S. June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Immigrant children, many of whom have been separated from their parents under a new “zero tolerance” policy by the Trump administration, are being housed in tents next to the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas, U.S. June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Immigrant children, many of whom have been separated from their parents under a new “zero tolerance” policy by the Trump administration, are shown walking in single file between tents in their compound next to the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas, U.S. June 18, 2018. Picture taken June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake

The inside of a dormitory at the Tornillo facility, a shelter for children of detained migrants, is seen in this photo provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in Tornillo, Texas, U.S., June 14, 2018. ACF/HHS/Handout via REUTERS Picture taken June 14, 2018. ATTENTION EDITORS – THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.

Immigrant children, many of whom have been separated from their parents under a new “zero tolerance” policy by the Trump administration, walk in single file between tents in their compound next to the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas, U.S. June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Immigrant children, many of whom have been separated from their parents under a new “zero tolerance” policy by the Trump administration, are shown walking in single file between tents in their compound next to the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas, U.S. June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake

The Tornillo facility, a shelter for children of detained migrants, is seen in this photo provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in Tornillo, Texas, U.S., June 14, 2018. ACF/HHS/Handout via REUTERS Picture taken June 14, 2018. ATTENTION EDITORS – THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.

Immigrant children, many of whom have been separated from their parents under a new “zero tolerance” policy by the Trump administration, are being housed in tents by the Department of Homeland Security next to the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas, U.S. June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Immigrant children, many of whom have been separated from their parents under a new “zero tolerance” policy by the Trump administration, are shown walking in single file between tents in their compound next to the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas, U.S. June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake

The Tornillo facility, a shelter for children of detained migrants, is seen in this photo provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in Tornillo, Texas, U.S., June 14, 2018. ACF/HHS/Handout via REUTERS Picture taken June 14, 2018. ATTENTION EDITORS – THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.

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The Tornillo facility opened in June in an isolated pocket of the Texas desert with capacity for 360 children. It expanded into a guarded detention camp that in mid-December held more than 2,700 largely Central American teens in rows of canvas tents.

At that point, more people were detained in Tornillo’s tent city than in all but one of the nation’s 204 federal prisons. 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 had rows of beige tents and golf carts that ferried staffers carrying walkie-talkies. Teens with identical haircuts and government-issued shirts and pants could be seen walking single file from tent to tent, flanked by staff at the front and back.

Politicians and advocates for immigrants and human rights protested at the site over the seven months it was open, with some even taking up vigils.

“It was chilling to see thousands of children locked up in a tent prison in the desert. It’s great news that those children have finally been moved out of Tornillo,” said Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat who in December introduced the Shut Down Child Prison Camps Act.

The tent city came under fire in November after a report that the Trump administration had waived FBI fingerprint checks for the 2,100 staff working there and allowed BCFS to staff just one mental health clinician for every 100 children. Lawmakers called for stricter background checks, more mental health support and a public hearing to further investigate problems at Tornillo raised by a federal watchdog report and an Associated Press investigation.

Some lawmakers said they were pleased to hear about the closure of the facility but warned that other detention centers holding migrant teens are still open. On Tuesday, there were 10,944 migrant children held in the government’s network of shelters, foster homes and detention centers, according to confidential government data obtained and cross-checked by AP.

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Migrants detained near US-Mexico border

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MCALLEN, TX – JUNE 12: Central American asylum seekers wait as U.S. Border Patrol agents take them into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants’ country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

MCALLEN, TX – JUNE 12: Central American asylum seekers wait as U.S. Border Patrol agents take them into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants’ country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

MCALLEN, TX – JUNE 12: Central American asylum seekers are taken into custody by U.S. Border Patrol agents on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants’ country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

MCALLEN, TX – JUNE 12: A U.S. Border Patrol agent takes a group of Central American asylum seekers into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The immigrant families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants’ country of origin would no longer qualify them for political-asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

MCALLEN, TX – JUNE 12: A two-year-old Honduran asylum seeker cries as her mother is searched and detained near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The asylum seekers had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and were detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents before being sent to a processing center for possible separation. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is executing the Trump administration’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants’ country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

MCALLEN, TX – JUNE 12: U.S. Border Patrol agents take Central American asylum seekers into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The immigrant families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants’ country of origin would no longer qualify them for political-asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

MCALLEN, TX – JUNE 12: A U.S. Border Patrol agent looks for groups of asylum seekers crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants’ country of origin would no longer qualify them for political-asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

MCALLEN, TX – JUNE 12: U.S. Border Patrol agents take Central American asylum seekers into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The immigrant families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants’ country of origin would no longer qualify them for political-asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

MCALLEN, TX – JUNE 12: Central American asylum seekers wait as U.S. Border Patrol agents take groups of them into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants’ country of origin would no longer qualify them for political-asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

MCALLEN, TX – JUNE 12: U.S. Border Patrol agents take a group of Central American asylum seekers into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The immigrant families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants’ country of origin would no longer qualify them for political-asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

MCALLEN, TX – JUNE 12: A Honduran mother holds her two-year-old as U.S. Border Patrol as agents review their papers near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The asylum seekers had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and were detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents before being sent to a processing center for possible separation. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is executing the Trump administration’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants’ country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

MCALLEN, TX – JUNE 12: A two-year-old Honduran stands with her mother after being detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The asylum seekers had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and were detained before being sent to a Border Patrol processing center for possible separation. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is executing the Trump administration’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants’ country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

MCALLEN, TX – JUNE 12: A U.S. Border Patrol spotlight shines on a terrified mother and son from Honduras as they are found in the dark near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The asylum seekers had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and had become lost in the woods. They were then detained by Border Patrol agents and then sent to a processing center for possible separation. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is executing the Trump administration’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants’ country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

MCALLEN, TX – JUNE 12: U.S. Border Patrol agents detain a group of Central American asylum seekers near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The group of women and children had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and were detained before being sent to a processing center for possible separation. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is executing the Trump administration’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants’ country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

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“It’s a weight off my shoulders to have children now with family members. If you’re trying to use kids to fix a broken immigration system, then you have a real problem,” said Rep. Will Hurd, a Texas Republican whose district includes the detention camp.

Other representatives expressed concerns about the expansion of other detention facilities for migrant youth. U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Florida Democrat, said she is worried about increasing the number of beds in a facility south of Miami. Last month, the government announced it would house more teens in the Homestead shelter, expanding the total number of beds from 1,350 to 2,350.

“Instead of putting these children with family and a public school, they are warehousing these kids,” Wilson said. “For most of these children that we have in detention, we have sponsors that have volunteered to take them and to sort of act as foster parents until their asylum cases have been heard.”

Neha Desai, immigration director at the Oakland-based National Center for Youth Law, welcomed the closure Friday but said many more migrant kids remain in federal custody.

“We cannot forget that there continue to be thousands of children detained in facilities that fail to meet the basic medical, mental health and educational needs of children,” Desai said. “These children should be home with their families.”