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Last migrant youths are moved from Texas 'tent city' in the desert

Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

MCALLEN, Texas -- The last child departed what was once the nation's largest shelter for migrant youths on Friday, a "tent city" in the west Texas desert town of Tornillo that had spurred protests, official criticism and proposed legislation.

Workers have been dismantling parts of the massive temporary shelter east of El Paso for months, ever since the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the agency responsible for initially housing migrant youths, ended its contract with the nonprofit BCFS Health and Human Services.

Tornillo had held more than 6,200 teens since it opened June 10, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Last summer, when immigrant family separations on the border spawned protests and outrage from lawmakers and celebrities, Tornillo became a rallying point, although officials said few of the migrant children separated from their parents were housed there. Still, a protest camp sprang up, and still remains.

Juan Ortiz has been protesting outside Tornillo since September, commuting from Tucson where he's working on his doctorate in Mexican American studies at the University of Arizona. Ortiz, 44, an El Paso native, said that although the children had been moved, many shelter tents remained -- and so would he until the shelter disappears.

From outside the facility Friday, he said he worried about the children who'd been moved, concerned that government officials "are just going to keep shuffling them from place to place."

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Victoria Palmer, a spokeswoman for the Health and Human Services Department, said that Tornillo would remain operational "through early 2019" but that no more migrant youths would be placed there. A spokeswoman for BCFS, formerly known as Baptist Child Family Services, referred questions to the U.S. agency.

After visiting Tornillo last month, Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., proposed legislation to close such massive emergency shelters, including a second facility in Homestead, Fla. They noted that the shelters are exempted from state childcare facility licensing requirements and that staff at Tornillo had not undergone FBI background checks.

"This makes children vulnerable to abuse, poses serious developmental challenges, and risks retraumatizing them," Chu wrote in a statement. "Worst of all, this is a choice that was made by this administration. Unaccompanied children have been and can be released to loved ones or family who will look after their safety and well-being. Instead, Trump is fomenting xenophobia."

The facility was criticized in a Health and Human Services inspector general's report last year over the lack of required FBI fingerprint background checks. The Nov. 27 report also said the Tornillo facility did not employ enough clinicians to provide adequate mental health care for the children held there.

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