Jan. 11 (UPI) — Trump administration officials removed the last unaccompanied migrant child from a so-called “tent city” in Tornillo, Texas, on Friday, a move applauded by federal lawmakers and human rights advocates.
Since December, the Department of Health and Human Services has reduced the population at the temporary shelter near El Paso from a high of nearly 3,000 young migrants to about 700 earlier this week. Federal officials have been working to put the children on flights out of El Paso to sponsors or other facilities in other parts of the country.
“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,” tweeted U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, who represents a border district.
Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, based out of El Paso, said the closure was good for the children and their families.
“And it shows the power of people who showed up for them and shared with the rest of the country that we were locking up immigrant kids for months at a time. You made this happen,” he tweeted.
Almost 7,000 children have passed through Tornillo in the past seven months, costing U.S. taxpayers more than $144 million.
There was an influx of detained migrant children at the Tornillo facility over the second half of 2018 after the Trump administration instituted its zero-tolerance policy, prosecuting all adults who crossed the border illegally and separating them from their children in the process.
The increase also was partly attributed to enhanced background checks the government says it requires to release children to sponsors in the United States.
New rules required a sponsor to submit fingerprints of all people living in the household. In December, DHHS decided to relax background checks for sponsoring households, giving the first sign it would no longer send unaccompanied children to Tornillo.
Kevin Dinnin, the CEO of Baptist Children and Family Services, a San Antonio-based non-profit that operated the Tornillo site, told Vice that DHHS closed down the facility because he refused to comply with a Trump administration request for him to accept more children there.
“The children were coming in but never leaving,” he said in an interview published Friday. “We as an organization finally drew the line. You can’t keep taking children in and not releasing them.”
The Border Network for Human Rights, a non-profit advocacy group, said that though it is “heartened” by the news of Tornillo’s closure, it is not the end of the Trump administration holding migrant children in detention.
“America must get at the heart of the problem — the intractable inhumanity migrant detention imposes on children, families, and adults. We cannot accept detention that denies adequate food or medical care, denies human contact to children, wields solitary confinement as a punishment, denies access to due process, and consistently fails to meet the government’s own standards,” the organization said.
A Department of Health and Human Services inspector general report in November determined the Tornillo facility did not staff enough mental health clinicians nor did it conduct FBI fingerprint background check on employees.
Another IG audit in December faulted BCFS for failing to complete medical exams on children in a timely manner, post video cameras in all common areas, conduct background checks on sponsors and document the family reunification process.
Patrick Timmons contributed to this report.