Immigrant children to be released faster from Tornillo tent city with HHS policy change

December 18, 2018
In The News

Undocumented immigrant children will be released quicker from the Tornillo tent city and other shelters after a policy change regarding the fingerprinting of sponsors' households.

A backlog of FBI background checks of sponsor families had been blamed for delaying the release of unaccompanied immigrant children held in Tornillo and other government-contracted shelters across the nation.

The Department of Health and Human Services on Tuesday announced that it was changing the way it conducts background checks, which will speed up the release of children.

Fingerprints and FBI background checks still will be required of all sponsors but not from all members of a sponsor's household, an HHS spokesperson said.

A search of U.S. Department of Homeland Security arrest records is still part of the sponsor background check, HHS said.

The government will continue to conduct a public records check of all adults in a household "to ensure child safety," HHS said in a statement.

There were about 2,800 children, ages 13-17, as of last week at the controversial tent city at the Tornillo border port of entry outside El Paso, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Several members of Congress have called on the Trump administration to close the facility, saying that children belong with their parents or relatives instead of being detained by the government.

When children are released from shelters, they are placed with a relative or sponsor in the United States as their cases go through immigration court proceedings.

The temporary shelter in Tornillo opened in June and initially housed about 300 children before significantly expanding.

Also in June, the government put into place a new policy that required all sponsors and household members to be fingerprinted as part of the background check.

HHS said that the fingerprint background checks of all household members had generally not found additional child welfare risks and that the fingerprints checks had increased the time children spent at the shelters.

HHS reports that 79 percent of the children at the Tornillo facility are boys and spend an average of 33 days at the site. The shelter has 3,800 beds.

Since it opened, the shelter has housed 6,000 children, with 3,100 having been released from the facility, HHS said.

The children are mostly from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, officials have said.

In October, about 60 percent of the 1,500 children housed at the temporary facility were waiting for the background check results in order to be released, said the commander who works for BCFS, the nonprofit contracted to run the shelter.

Calls for shelter's closure

Republican U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, whose district runs from San Antonio to eastern El Paso County, on Tuesday joined other members of Congress in calling for the shelter's closure.

In a series of tweets, Hurd asked that HHS "stop intentionally delaying" the release of children to relatives or sponsors in the U.S. or to family in their home countries.

"We are the United States of America. ... We are better than this," Hurd said.

On Saturday, U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-El Paso, and U.S. Rep.-elect Veronica Escobar of El Paso joined Democratic U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Tina Smith of Minnesota and Democratic U.S. Rep. Judy Chu of California in a tour of the Tornillo shelter.

Merkley said 1,300 of the children at Tornillo have family members and sponsors who have completed fingerprint background checks but had yet to be released. 

The contract between the federal government and BCFS expires Dec. 31. O'Rourke said the contract has yet to be renewed.

Multiple protests have taken place since June demanding the closure of the Tornillo tent city.

O'Rourke said the government has already spent more than $144 million to run the Tornillo facility since it opened in June, and the government has earmarked a total of $300 million for the operation.

The Tornillo shelter is part of an HHS network of about 100 facilities in 17 states.