Tent City in Texas, What Is A Reality for Migrant Teens
About 40 miles southeast of El Paso, past the billboards for fast food joints and rugged desert hills, residents of this small community sometimes can see the lights of the nearby detention camp glowing in the night.
Some of them have brought gifts for the roughly 2,300 children inside, only to be turned away by guards.
Months after the government erected a tent city in the desert, most of what happens inside the encampment remains hidden, even from curious neighbors in the nearby town of 1,600 residents. The only images of the minors in the camp, standing outside in an orderly line or playing soccer, have been released by the Department of Health and Human Services.
There is one local organization that gets inside the camp regularly: Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services. The El Paso legal nonprofit is among dozens of groups funded by the government to provide legal services to immigrant children in custody.
But lawyers at Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services, known locally as DMRS, can’t speak publicly about the children at Tornillo. Their contract prohibits them from talking to the media, Executive Director Melissa Lopez said in an interview. It’s another aspect of the conflict of interest built into the funding for legal aid, which also prevents lawyers from taking the government to court to get children released.
She referred questions to the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. “It’s better for the details to come from them,” she said. The agency has not responded to a request for comment.
When it opened over the summer, the camp was meant to be a temporary home for children ages 13 to 17 caught crossing the border alone. But with a growing population and a contract to keep it open at least through December, the camp is taking on a role similar to the government’s permanent shelters for unaccompanied migrant children. It can now accommodate up to 3,800 minors.
The secrecy surrounding the camp has frustrated longtime residents of Tornillo and alarmed lawyers and advocates who question its conditions. After a tour of the tent city Sept. 24, advocates left with concerns that children were given only workbooks, but no other education, and less access to mental health counseling than found in other shelters.
There is also evidence that children aren’t getting the legal representation they need.
The town’s representative in the Texas Legislature, Democratic Texas state Rep. Mary González, said she is particularly concerned that the children aren’t receiving adequate legal help. During a recent morning at immigration court in El Paso, she saw several minors from the camp appear before a judge without a lawyer, González said.
“DMRS is a nonprofit organization. They’re doing the best that they can,” González said. “But think about it this way: They were already overwhelmed with the services they had to provide in the local community. Now there’s a thousand kids in Tornillo.”
However strained the group has been, its contract prevents officials from complaining publicly if children aren’t getting representation.
“I don’t want the government telling anyone they can’t speak to the press,” González said. “Transparency, particularly in a situation as sensitive as this, is such a vital tool.”
As sweltering summer days at the tent city have given way to freezing fall desert nights, more and more of the children living there are going to court.
Iliana Holguin, an El Paso immigration attorney, said her understanding was that, since Tornillo was a temporary shelter, children weren’t supposed to face immigration court while being held at the camp.
Today, that’s all changed. Children are hauled from Tornillo to El Paso’s downtown immigration court as many as four days a week. Without their families and, in many cases, without the legal help to which they’re entitled, they’re forced to make major decisions like whether to return to their home countries or whether to seek asylum.
Detained migrant children are entitled to legal representation under federal law. Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services’ federally funded legal aid contract includes doing that work.
But on Oct. 11, according to a BuzzFeed report, 11 children from Tornillo faced a judge with no legal help, only a representative from BCFS Health and Human Services, the contractor that runs the shelter.
The following week, González, the state lawmaker, went to court to see for herself. This time, she said there were about 10 children, most in their mid-teens.
“The kids walk in, they’re asked their name and age, they’re told how important this hearing is,” she recalled. “They’re told, ‘We advise you to get a lawyer.’ ”
González said there was an attorney from Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services present — but only to give advice as a “friend of the court,” not to represent the children. Instead, she said, they were given a list of pro bono legal resources — in English only — which includes DMRS and five other groups, one of which won’t take clients who are in detention.
It was clear, González said, that children weren’t getting the help they needed. Most were making their first court appearance and asked the judge for later court dates to prepare their asylum claims.
Vega-Barrio described the town as quiet and family-oriented. There are reminders of the town’s new neighbor. The lights illuminating the tents at night can be seen from the high school stadium. Large white buses heading to the camp sometimes cut through Tornillo.
Surrounded by desert and cotton fields, the town with no traffic lights has one mom-and-pop grocery store and a gas station. On a recent afternoon, Escalante’s mother waited for customers to arrive at her hair salon, which she runs out of a small brick house in her backyard.
People in town talk about the shelter, Maria Escalante said. Many are sympathetic to the children because they’re separated from their families and living in a strange place. Some residents, she’s heard, now are working at the camp.
“It came out of nowhere,” she said of the shelter. “If it was a good thing, we would feel good about it. But what’s happening is just sad.”