October 22, 2018

Udall, Heinrich, O’Rourke Demand Answers from HHS on Unaccompanied Migrant Children Detained at Tornillo Facility

Following visits to Tornillo, lawmakers urge transparency from HHS on conditions for detained migrant children, efforts to place children with family or appropriate sponsors

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) urged U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar to provide information on the operations and conditions of the temporary tent facility in Tornillo, Texas housing detained unaccompanied migrant children. In a letter to Azar, the lawmakers demanded answers regarding the expansion of the Tornillo facility, and new administration policies that are seemingly prolonging detention of children and deterring sponsors from coming forward to take custody of the detained children.

Udall, Heinrich, and O’Rourke requested that HHS provide detailed responses – within 30 days – to a series of questions on the treatment of detained children, including conditions at the facility and whether children are being given meaningful access to their legal rights. The lawmakers also sought responses to questions on the Trump administration’s April 2018 Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) requiring Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) share information about unaccompanied migrant children with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), including new policies that may be deterring potential sponsors and prolonging detention of minors in ORR care. 

“We write to express our deep concern about [HHS’] expanded operations of the temporary facility for unaccompanied alien children (UAC) at Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Tornillo, Texas, Land Port of Entry (LPOE),” the lawmakers wrote. “Although HHS has reportedly reunited 2,070 of the total 2,608 children that were originally taken into ORR custody as a result of the Trump Administration’s reprehensible zero-tolerance policy, tens of thousands of children are still in ORR custody.  These children and their families are often fleeing violence in their home countries and have likely experienced significant trauma. We believe that ORR should be working as quickly as possible to reunify every child separated as a result of the zero-tolerance policy and keep the number of UACs in custody to a minimum. HHS’s lack of transparency to Congress is unacceptable.”

Udall, Heinrich, and O’Rourke have each visited the Tornillo facility to see firsthand the conditions under which children continue to be detained. On October 1, 2018, staff from the lawmakers’ offices conducted a follow-up visit to examine facility conditions and continue to provide oversight to ensure that children are quickly reunited with family or appropriate sponsors. “Recognizing that this is a non-licensed, influx care facility, we must ensure that services provided are parallel to the minimum child care and treatment standards set out by the Flores Settlement Agreement (FSA) and adhere to the ORR Guide to Children Entering the United States Unaccompanied (ORR Policy Guide),” the lawmakers wrote.

The lawmakers expressed their deep concerns regarding the expansion of the Tornillo facility, especially since HHS has produced no evidence of a dramatic increase in the influx of unaccompanied migrant children arriving at our borders that would warrant the use of such emergency shelters. The lawmakers demanded that Secretary Azar provide information justifying the expansion of the Tornillo facility in spite of the fact that the number of unaccompanied children crossing the border are not at record levels, especially in comparison to past years. “…It is imperative we understand what specific factors are driving the expansion of temporary UAC facilities such as Tornillo,” they wrote.

According to the New York Times, “housing children in Tornillo costs about three times as much as placement in a traditional shelter, according to government figures.” Once the administration completes its expansion of the tent city, the Tornillo center is expected to require approximately $100 million a month to operate.

The full letter is available HERE.