A massive tent camp in Texas that at one point housed some 2,800 migrant teenagers who had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border alone will close, the Trump administration announced Friday.
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By this weekend, the last of the children there either will have been sent to live with sponsors or transferred to another shelter, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The Tornillo facility in Texas had become a lightening rod in the immigration debate. The tent camp ballooned as U.S. officials reported an influx of older children and teenagers arriving at the border without parents. HHS took custody of the “unaccompanied minors,” and relied on privately run shelters like Tornillo scattered across the country to care for the teens.
At one point, the total number of migrant minors in U.S. custody reached nearly 15,000. An HHS spokeswoman said Friday that the number has since dropped to 11,0000.
Amnesty International and some Democrats cheered the move to close Tornillo, which had been the subject of an internal investigation on whether background checks into staff members had been sufficient.
“Warehousing thousands of children in tents for weeks and months on end has been one of the most disastrous policies of the Trump administration responding to children and families seeking safety at the border,” said Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA.
Administration officials say they have had little choice but to house teens in facilities like Tornillo because the kids weren’t in the country legally and releasing them to sponsors without stringent background checks could have put them at additional risk.
BREAKING: I just talked with the management at the Tornillo facility – the last kid just left. This tent city should never have stood in the first place but it is welcome news that it will be gone.
— Rep. Will Hurd (@HurdOnTheHill) January 11, 2019
But company officials who ran the facility told ABC News last month that the company had refused to accept a government contract past Jan. 1. They blamed the government for causing the crisis by demanding onerous FBI background checks and bureaucratic rules that caused some children to languish at the facility for more than 50 days.
With the system buckling under the strain of caring for so many children, the Trump administration announced in December that it would loosen requirements for sponsorship.
Lynn Johnson, assistant secretary of the administration for children and families at HHS, said that the last group of children will be discharged from Tornillo this weekend and the shelter will “continue the path towards closure.”
“As the Trump administration continues to enforce current laws to address our nation’s crisis at the border, the program will need to continue to evaluate needs and capacity in order to care for the hundreds of (unaccompanied minors) that cross the U.S. border daily,” she wrote in a statement provided to ABC News.
Her statement, however, suggested that other facilities like Tornillo aren’t going away and could be used again if there’s continued influx of asylum claims at the southern border.
“The program is designed to expand and contract to meet these needs and facilities, like Tornillo, have been critical during periods of influx as was done in 2012, 2014, and 2016.”