TORNILLO — The controversial Tornillo temporary detention facility in west Texas that has housed thousands of migrant children is shutting down, two months after a report warned of “serious safety and health vulnerabilities” at the camp.
The Republican congressman Will Hurd, who from early on voiced his opposition to having the facility within his district, was the first to announce the departure of the last group of children on Friday.
“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,” Hurd announced on Twitter.
The former congressman Beto O’Rourke said the forthcoming closure showed “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.”
The facility, located adjacent to the Marcelino Serna port of entry on the US border, just south of the town of Tornillo, opened in June to allow the federal government to house a rising number of unaccompanied minors crossing the border.
It also housed migrant children who had been separated from their family at the border under the Trump administration’s widely condemned family separation policy, which was rescinded on 20 June.
When it first opened its doors, the facility only had room for 400 youths and was only expected to run for a month. After more than three months and a couple of contract extensions, the facility increased its capacity to house up to 2,800 migrants by the end of September.
Less than two months ago, Daniel Levinson, the inspector general of the health and human services department, issued a warning about the camp’s lack of criminal background checks for staff and the number of clinicians, among other concerns.
By December, pressure from the local community, activists across the country, and the Trump administration’s persistent requests to continue to expand led the site’s operators to refuse to take any more children.
Kevin Dinnin, CEO of BCFS, the contractor that ran the site, told Vice News that a big factor in the decision to turn the children away was the federal government’s pre-occupation with expanding capacity rather than uniting the minors with their families.
“The children were coming in but never leaving … We as an organization finally drew the line,” Dinnin said. “You can’t keep taking children in and not releasing them.”
According to sources, out of the nearly 3,000 minors who were at the shelter in mid-December, the vast majority are expected to be sent to their sponsors in the US, while only a handful of them will be sent to one of the permanent shelters operated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which keeps custody of unaccompanied minors who enter the country.
“[The Tornillo facility] was a symbol of this administration’s deep inhumanity as shown by their willingness to hold tens of thousands of migrant children in detention,” said Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights. “Migrant children and families never should have been separated or held in detention.”
Camilo Perez-Bustillo, the director of research and advocacy at Hope Border Institute, interviewed some of the teens who were detained in Tornillo in November.
“What I noticed about them was their vulnerability and trauma. They came from very precarious circumstances living in households which were on the edge,” he said. “They’ve been through hell and you can see it in their eyes and you can hear it in their voices.”
But Perez-Bustillo warned: “The story of Tornillo is not over, not until the situation of the more than 13,000 children still in detention is resolved.”