It's Your Tornillo, Texas, Kinder-Kamp Update!
The Trump administration announced a policy change yesterday that could result in the release of thousands of migrant kids being held in "shelters" run by the Department of Health and Human Services, and possibly the closure of that big "tent city" detention facility outside Tornillo, Texas. The camp is nearly at capacity, and members of Congress are rightly pissed. US Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, who toured the camp over the weekend, called the place a "child prison camp" and noted that while many of the kids in detention have family members waiting to sponsor them, the administration has created a bottleneck preventing the kids' release.
HHS has now cleared one small part of that bottleneck, the result of new policies put in place in June, but is keeping the worst aspect of it in place: HHS will continue to share information on prospective sponsors with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which ICE can then use to arrest and deport anyone illegally in the US. That's the same tactic that led to the arrests of 170 members of families trying to help detained kids earlier this year.
HHS is responsible for storing migrant kids and placing them in foster care, but in June, as part of the "zero tolerance" family separation policy, HHS implemented a Git Tuff approach toward people applying to care for kids in detention. All adults in the home of a sponsor would have to be fingerprinted and subject to an FBI criminal background check. Until this year, data from applicants' background checks was used solely by HHS's Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), to make sure children would have a safe place to live. But in the inexorable logic of Stephen Miller's drive to deport everyone, HHS was required to send that information to ICE, effectively weaponizing the background checks against the very people who want to provide kids a home.
The new policies led to overcrowding of kids in HHS shelters, because of course families became reluctant to apply as sponsors. Now HHS is framing the new procedure as a matter of efficiency without acknowledging that the enhanced screening is what caused the overcrowding in the first place.
Starting immediately, HHS will now only require fingerprinting for those who apply to foster a kid in detention. The other members of their households will still be subject to background checks, and that information will be shared with ICE, so arrests and deportations of those seeking to get kids out of detention may still happen. USA. USA.
Even so, dropping the fingerprinting requirement could make a difference for thousands of kids currently in ORR custody. Lynn Johnson, assistant secretary at HHS' Administration for Children and Families, told NPR that of the nearly 15,000 kids currently in the HHS shelter system, about 2,000 are ready to be released within the next few days to families that have already been vetted.
US Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee -- which controls HHS's budget -- is glad to see that at least one roadblock to getting kids out of baby jail has been taken away. But she ain't happy, not by a long shot, as she told Texas Monthly:
"The latest news from HHS is a positive step toward beginning to unravel its misguided fingerprinting policy, which has prolonged the trauma thousands of children in its custody face. Still, the heart of this harmful policy is still in place," DeLauro said. "HHS should focus on providing the best care for these children, not be used as an immigration enforcement tool by fingerprinting sponsors when there are no red flags and then sharing that information with ICE. This process endangers children and will perpetuate their detention in HHS shelters."
As for that "temporary" tent city outside Tornillo, the new policy may help shut it down, or it may not. The Kinder Kamp went up in June, with an initial capacity of 400 beds, but it quickly expanded; by September it was holding up to 3,800 migrant kids, many of whom were abruptly moved from other shelters in the middle of the night because that's how we do things now. It's possible the streamlined vetting of sponsors could result in that shelter's being closed, maybe:
HHS has a contract with the operator, BCFS Health and Human Services, that expires December 31. But Representative Will Hurd, a Republican from Helotes whose district includes Tornillo, said the bulk of the children there could be quickly released under the new policy and if the administration clears a huge backlog of sponsors who've already submitted fingerprints and other background materials but have been left waiting for final word. "My understanding is its 1,300 kids whose sponsors have already done everything that's needed to get reviewed, if the kid can get released to them. Then there's 1,100 who have a sponsor that has come forward that are waiting for the fingerprinting and this process to start," Hurd said.
BCFS, a San Antonio-based nonprofit, owns all the infrastructure at Tornillo and is likely the only organization equipped to run a mass shelter for children. BCFS officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
BCFS CEO Kevin Dinnin told a congressional delegation that visited Tornillo on Saturday that the facility could close within weeks if the administration changed the fingerprint policy.
Considering that cruelty is the point of all Trump immigration policy, we suspect any releases will serve mainly to create more capacity to detain kids.
And of course, there's one hell of an irony embedded in all this: Even with the relaxed fingerprinting rules, families wanting to foster migrant kids still undergo very detailed background checks, but hey, workers at that Tornillo camp? No FBI background checks at all.
Forget the eggnog -- just give us the booze, OK?
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