Expanding migrant children ‘tent city’ draws protests

The "tent city" for "unaccompanied alien children" at Tornillo, Texas, houses 1,500 children and has a capacity for 3,800. File photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

TORNILLO, Texas, Nov. 16 (UPI) — Even as construction trucks, water tankers and buses of children entered a “tent city” for migrant children at the Tornillo port of entry adjacent to the U.S.-Mexico border, interfaith groups from around the United States converged at its entrance to protest detaining “unaccompanied alien children” in the West Texas desert.

“The detention center is huge and it is out in the middle of nowhere,” Sharon Morton told UPI.

The now-retired kindergarten teacher and principal traveled to the border with members of her synagogue, the Hakafa Congregation from Chicago’s North Shore.”Children are precious and when they are growing up it is a special time. I am not happy about incarcerating children,” Morton said.

Announced by the Trump administration in the summer as a temporary solution to the migrant refugee crisis, Tornillo first housed 450 unaccompanied children but then expanded to 1,500 children. In October, the Office of Refugee Resettlement announced it would expand to house 3,800 children at a cost of more than $400 million.

“A month ago when the administration announced they were expanding it tenfold and trying to make it a permanent place, we as a religious community knew we had to be here as one voice to tell folks this is morally, religiously and fundamentally wrong,” Rabbi Bruce Elder of Hakafa Congregation told UPI.

About 80 people of various religious denominations from El Paso and beyond, including Jews, Christians and Muslims, gathered at the Marcelino Serna Port of Entry in Tornillo where the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has contracted with Baptist Child and Family Services to build the “tent city.”

There are unmistakable signs the “tent city” is expanding. The parking lot for the facility is now filled with dozens of cars, trucks and materials for construction.

Josh Rubin spoke to UPI about living in an RV outside the “tent city” for one month and two days to “witness,” he said, “who goes in and out.”

“I’m concerned about the imprisonment of about 1,500 teens,” Rubin said, “They are in there for indefinite periods, waiting for some sort of placement, and I’m afraid they are going to get lost in the shuffle. I’m afraid that [President] Donald Trump is going to tweet something and people are going to forget about this place.”

Rubin told UPI about Tornillo’s expansion.

“I see them bringing in construction equipment because they are expanding the camp now. There is a big tent going up now. It just went up yesterday. They are moving in a lot of equipment to put up new tents. They seem to be favoring large tents now,” he said.

“They have no running water in there. The kids drink bottled water but they truck in water for washing from a hydrant down the road,” he said.

As he spoke to UPI, another water truck entered the facility.

Terry Franco, a theology teacher at Loretto High School for Girls in El Paso, a Catholic school, brought about 30 of her students to the protest. Franco said she offered the students the chance to go to the vigil, as she called it, and about 80 percent wanted to come.

“Our core values are faith, community, justice and respect. And we are also for the rights of the migrant. Separating families and incarcerating children go against our core values,” Franco said, “so we wanted to come to show the students what positive activism looks like.”

The people protesting at Tornillo came from all over the United States: California, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New York and Washington, D.C.

Rumu Das Gupta traveled to Tornillo from New Jersey with the Sisters of Mercy, a progressive Catholic denomination made up of women. She told UPI she wanted to witness what was happening to immigrants who are fleeing violence as a consequence of U.S. policy.

“I came to the United States from India in 1973 to study for my Ph.D in Sociology,” Das Gupta said. “This is not the character of the nation that I know. I’m here to tell the immigrants, and especially the children, we welcome you.”

Das Gupta is a mother and grandmother so the detention of children specifically touches her, she said.

“They are not with their families. They are not with their parents. This is inexcusable and there is no reason why this should be happening. I’m here because I want immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers to know that not everybody thinks the same way as the leaders in Washington, D.C.”


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