A tent camp for migrant children in the desert outside El Paso will expand to accommodate a growing number of Central American children crossing the border, the Department of Health and Human Services said Tuesday.
HHS, the federal agency tasked with caring for migrant children and teenagers in U.S. custody, said it would more than triple the size of its camp at the Tornillo-Guadalupe Land Port of Entry from 1,200 beds to as many as 3,800.
The Trump administration established the camp in June as a temporary shelter because its facilities elsewhere were running out of space. That occurred at the height of President Trump’s “zero tolerance” prosecution initiative, a crackdown that separated about 2,500 migrant children from their parents.
Widespread condemnation forced Trump to reverse course and stop the separations, but since then, HHS has taken in greater numbers of underage migrants. The number of families illegally crossing the border jumped again in recent weeks, according to border agents and administration officials. U.S. Customs and Border Protection is scheduled to release its latest arrest totals Wednesday.
Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for HHS’s Administration for Children and Families, said the need for emergency capacity was the result of the latest surge at the border, not the administration’s decision to separate families during the crackdown this spring.
“ ‘Family separations’ resulting from the zero tolerance policy ended on June 20, 2018 and are not driving this need,” Wolfe said in a statement.
HHS officials have “worked round the clock to add beds or add shelters to avoid any backup” at the border,” Wolfe added. He said the agency has 12,800 minors in its custody, the highest number ever. Minors spend an average of 59 days in HHS custody, up from 51 days in 2017.
HHS has used the Tornillo site primarily to house older teens, channeling younger children in its custody to more “permanent” sites among the approximately 100 shelters where migrant children are housed.
At the Tornillo camp, teens sleep in large, climate-controlled canvas tents, and the site offers a full range of services including recreational and educational activities, according to HHS.
Wolfe said 1,400 of the 3,800 beds at the expanded site would remain on reserve status so they could be “brought online incrementally as needed.” The camp will remain open at least through the end of this year, according to HHS.
Underage migrants who arrive without a parent may include teens traveling alone or younger children sent for by parents or relatives living in the United States. After crossing from Mexico, they typically turn themselves in to Border Patrol, which is legally obligated to transfer minors to HHS within 72 hours.
Underage migrants who enter the United States are often seeking some form of humanitarian protection, citing threats to their lives and their families by gangs and lawlessness in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
For children in its care, HHS works to identify and vet an adult sponsor who can assume custody and ensure the minors comply with immigration proceedings and court appointments. In nearly 90 percent of cases, that sponsor is a parent or close relative.
A new information-sharing agreement between HHS and the Department of Homeland Security has increased concerns that some potential sponsors living in the United States illegally will be too scared to come forward, knowing their information could be accessible to immigration enforcement agents.
To accommodate more migrant children and longer stays in U.S. custody, the Trump administration has asked the Pentagon to host additional camps and shelters on military bases, but Wolfe said the government has not broken ground on any new facilities.
Homeland Security officials say immigration and asylum laws make it difficult to deport children who arrive illegally. According to the latest DHS statistics, 98 percent of the 31,754 unaccompanied minors from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador who were taken into custody during the 2017 fiscal year were still in the United States as of June 30.