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A peek inside Tornillo’s tent city

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

TORNILLO – Journalists got their first look inside the tents that serve as a temporary emergency shelter for more than 300 teenage migrants during a tour Monday by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.

The facility, located next to the Tornillo border crossing in southwest Texas, has been the site of several rallies and public appearances by state and local officials protesting President Trump’s zero-tolerance policy, since it opened earlier this month. But most people have been barred from entering the tent city – including New Mexico’s two U.S. senators – until this weekend. Sen. Tom Udall was able to join a pre-scheduled tour on Saturday with two other Congressmen.

On Monday morning, a Journal reporter was among a small group that was allowed in on a guided tour and saw the immigrant children housed in air-conditioned tents that serve as living quarters.

“This country is taking care of children,” said Mark Weber, an HHS spokesman. “We’re not going to let them die in the desert and as a result we have facilities like this where children can be well taken care of while they wait for some kind of reunification, a sponsor here in the U.S. and go through the immigration proceedings.”

Most of the 326 teenagers who are staying at the facility arrived at the border alone, but 23 were separated from their parents.

“In the next few days, they will be united,” Weber said.

A majority of those in the facility are boys from Central America. Fourteen girls arrived over the weekend, according to HHS, and do not mingle with the boys.

Reporters were not allowed to interview the teens or take photographs or video inside the facility. Shelter staff could not be identified by their names in news stories under the conditions set for the tour.

Neat rows of bunk beds accommodate about 300 teens in air-conditioned tents near the border crossing at Tornillo, Texas. The residents of the tent city also have dining hall and a large screen for movies. (Source: Department of Health and Human Services)

The tour included tents filled with neat rows of bunk beds, a dining hall where the kids have three meals a day, and a large-screen for movies and a popcorn machine.

Most of the teenagers, aged 13 and above, prefer to watch the World Cup rather than movies, according to the shelter manager, and spend their free time on a makeshift soccer field.

The teens are not allowed to play soccer after 2 p.m., when the temperature is typically above 100 degrees this time of year. Inside the tents, massive air conditioners keep the temperatures cool.

A medical tent handles any emergencies or routine health issues, but there have not been any serious problems, according to medical staff. There is a separate tent with six “mental health clinicians” on staff to offer therapy.

The shelter was set up and is run by BCSF, a private company that has a nonprofit “health and human services’ emergency management division.”

The shelter manager said BCFS will not extend its 30-day contract beyond July 14.

He is opposed to separating families and said, “I would never like to do this mission again.”

The company has another contract to provide emergency response, and disaster and medical relief to federal agencies during natural disasters, including hurricanes.

‘I am blessed’

The temporary shelter was necessary because the 100 HHS shelters for immigrant children across the country were near capacity.

“Border Patrol station holding cells are not adequate for children,” Weber said.

A Guatemalan mother identified as Miriyam stands next to Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House, a shelter for immigrants in El Paso. She hopes to be reunited with her 4-year-old son. (Angela Kocherga/Albuquerque Journal)

The teens were transferred to Tornillo to make room for the younger kids in the other facilities. “This would not have been necessary without the separations,” the shelter manager said.

A staff of more than 250 people works multiple shifts around the clock taking care of the teenagers.

The boys, wearing shorts or jeans and T-shirts, lined up at one point to go to a “study hall” and seemed curious about the reporters on the tour. Some were quiet. Many smiled and said “Hola.”

A couple spoke a little English and asked reporters, “How are you?” When asked the same questions, one boy said, “Very good,” and another responded, “I am blessed.”

One of the busiest areas of the temporary shelter is the tent that serves as a call center. Inside, more than a dozen boys sat at desks as staff dialed numbers for them.

After screening the adult on the other end of the call, a staff member handed over the phone. Each teen is allowed two 10-minute calls a week to parents or other designated relatives in the United States.

Alternative options

The shelter manager spoke proudly of the conditions at the facility, which includes a fire truck, emergency response personnel and other trained staff caring for the kids.

But, he said, “I’m totally against the separation.”

The “controversial” nature of the facility is difficult on his staff, he said.

The shelter got death threats from a Texas man who was arrested in Corpus Christi after multiple menacing tweets, including one that misspelled Tornillo and said: “I’m on the way. Time to kill.”

HHS said it would dismantle temporary shelters “once we feel comfortable we have enough space,” which is expected to happen as the 2,000 children separated at the border are reunited with their parents or other relatives.

But the spokesman did not have a timetable.

The federal government is exploring alternative options – including military bases – if there’s another surge in families with children showing up on the border.

“We have looked at Fort Bliss as a site that we might consider at some time in the future,” Weber said.