The Trump administration has put the safety of thousands of teens at a migrant detention camp at risk by waiving FBI fingerprint checks for their caregivers and short-staffing mental health workers, according to an Associated Press investigation and a new federal watchdog report.
None of the 2,100 staffers at a tent city holding more than 2,300 teens in the remote Texas desert are going through rigorous FBI fingerprint background checks, according to a Health and Human Services inspector general memo published Tuesday.
“Instead, Tornillo is using checks conducted by a private contractor that has access to less comprehensive data, thereby heightening the risk that an individual with a criminal history could have direct access to children,” the memo says.
In addition, the federal government is allowing the nonprofit running the facility, BCFS Health and Human Services, to sidestep mental health care requirements. Under federal policy, migrant youth shelters generally must have one mental health clinician for every 12 kids, but the federal agency’s contract with BCFS allows it to staff Tornillo with just one clinician for every 100 children. That’s not enough to provide adequate mental health care, the inspector general office said in the memo.
BCFS said it has one mental health clinician for every 50 children at Tornillo.
Temporary shelter becoming permanent
The Trump administration announced in June it would open a temporary shelter for up to 360 migrant children in this isolated corner of Texas. Less than six months later, the facility has expanded into a detention camp holding thousands of teenagers, and it shows every sign of becoming more permanent.
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Mark Weber, said no decisions have been made about when Tornillo will close.
By Tuesday, 2,324 mostly Central American boys and girls between the ages of 13 and 17 were sleeping inside the highly guarded facility in rows of bunk beds in canvas tents.
The teens at Tornillo weren’t separated from their families at the border this summer. Almost all the teens came on their own hoping to join family members in the United States. Most are never charged with a crime; crossing illegally into the U.S. is a civil offense.
By law, migrant children traveling alone into the U.S. must be sent to a government shelter where they stay until they can be united with relatives or other sponsors while awaiting immigration court hearings. Migrant children’s time in government custody has grown longer, in part because of the Trump administration’s new requirements for deep background checks on sponsors who agree to take in young immigrants. That has resulted in the detention of a record 14,000 migrant children.
Some children have been detained at Tornillo since it opened in June. As the population inside the tall wire fences swells, the young detainees’ anguish has deepened.
“The few times they let me call my mom I would tell her that one day I would be free, but really I felt like I would be there for the rest of my life,” a 17-year-old from Honduras who was held at Tornillo earlier this year told AP. “I feel so bad for the kids who are still there. What if they have to spend Christmas there? They need a hug, and nobody is allowed to hug there.”
After his family passed extensive background checks, the teen was recently released to them, but said he still has nightmares he’s back inside. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal from immigration authorities.
‘We don’t have anything to hide’
By day, minders walk the teens to their meals, showers and recreation. At night the area around the camp, that’s grown to more than 150 tents, is secured and lighted by flood lights.
The nonprofit social service agency contracted to run Tornillo says it is proud of its work. It says it is operating the facility with the same precision and care used for shelters put up after natural disasters.
“We don’t have anything to hide. This is an exceptionally run operation,” said Krista Piferrer, a spokeswoman for BCFS Health and Human Services. “This isn’t our first rodeo.”
No fingerprint checks
In June, as detention centers for migrant children overflowed, Scott Lloyd, director of HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, signed a memo granting BCFS a waiver to staff up Tornillo without the required child abuse and neglect checks, which raise a red flag about any job candidate with a record of hurting a child. According to the inspector general, the agency was under pressure to open the detention camp quickly, and Lloyd’s agency assumed Tornillo staff had undergone FBI fingerprint checks. They had not.
Two days after Lloyd waived the safety checks, BCFS opened the tent city. Lloyd, under fire for his handling of the migrant crisis, was transferred out of the refugee resettlement branch and to a different division of HHS last week.
Since the facility opened, BCFS has been checking job candidates’ national and local criminal histories and doing multi-state sex offender registry checks, Piferrer said.
BCFS has filed more than 30 reports on “significant incidents” at Tornillo since June, including some involving interactions between the children and staff, but none of a sexual nature, Piferrer said.
FBI fingerprint background checks can be completed in a few minutes and reveal much more information about job candidates than checks that simply run a person’s name against criminal history databases, said Jeffrey Harp, a retired FBI assistant special agent in charge.
“How do you know the person is who they say they are unless you do a fingerprint check? They can’t lie about their fingerprints, but they can lie about their name or take on someone else’s identity who has a crystal clean record,” Harp told AP. “More and more employers are finding out they have an employee who is problematic only after the fact, and that’s because their employment screening isn’t really comprehensive.”
BCFS, a San Antonio nonprofit, runs Tornillo as it operates evacuation centers for hurricanes: There’s food, first aid, activities and bunk beds, but no formal school, therapy or unsupervised stretches.
Mental health needs
Federal officials have said repeatedly that only children without special needs were being sent to Tornillo. But facility administrators recently acknowledged that the Tornillo detainees included children with serious mental health issues who needed to be transferred to facilities in El Paso, according to a person with knowledge of the discussion who spoke on a condition of anonymity.
“When a child is found to have a mental health need that cannot be best provided for at Tornillo, a request is made to HHS to transfer the child to a more appropriate facility,” said Piferrer.
Dr. Elizabeth Carll, a teen and trauma specialist who heads the American Psychological Association’s Refugee Mental Health resource network, said institutionalizing so many teens in a geographically remote place makes it harder to recruit qualified clinicians.
Making things worse, Carll said migrant youth are likely to have higher emotional needs after going through hardship, enduring the journey north and being held in detention. They would do better if placed with trained, bilingual foster families, she said.
$1,200 per night
An AP investigation has found that the camp’s rapid growth has created serious problems, including costs that appear to be soaring more than 50 percent higher than the government has disclosed. What began as an emergency, 30-day shelter has transformed into a vast tent city that could cost taxpayers more than $430 million.
For each night each child spends at Tornillo, taxpayers spend up to $1,200 to pay the direct care workers, cooks, cleaners, teachers and emergency services workers, according to information staff at two congressional offices said they were provided on a recent visit. That’s well above the $775 officials have publicly disclosed, and close to five times more than a typical youth migrant shelter costs.
BCFS did not dispute the cost, but said on average, actual costs are closer to $750 a day, which would bring current operations to more than $12 million a week.
The costs at Tornillo are so high because everything, water, sewage, food, staff and detainees, must be trucked in and out of the remote site.
“Everything that is being provided has been directed by the federal government to be provided,” she said.