Hundreds of detained migrant children have been moved to a “tent city” in Texas on short notice, in the middle of the night, because authorities were afraid they might escape during the day.
The New York Times reports that the children, who were being held in shelters or foster homes from Kansas to New York, have been moved to the barren tent city in Tornillo, Texas, without school and with limited access to legal services.
The federal government has detained more than 13,000 migrant children — a 500% increase over last year. The average amount of time they’re held has nearly doubled from 34 days to 59. Most crossed the U.S.-Mexico border unaccompanied; some are seeking asylum.
The tent cities first attracted attention after President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy resulted in children being separated from their families until a court ruled that the separations had to stop and the children returned.
The Texas shelter opened in June with a capacity of 400 and was expanded to 3,800. The tents are air-conditioned; children are separated by gender and sleep in bunks, 20 to a tent.
“It is common to use influx shelters as done on military bases in the past, and the intent is to use these temporary facilities only as long as needed,” said Evelyn Stauffer, a spokeswoman for the Health and Human Services Department. “The number of families and unaccompanied alien children apprehended are a symptom of the larger problem, namely a broken immigration system.”
But the number of detainees has grown fivefold year-over-year while the number of border crossings has stayed relatively flat. The Trump administration’s harsh immigration policies have made it hard to place children with sponsors, the Times reports. Last week, an ICE official testified before Congress that the agency had arrested dozens of people who applied to sponsor children. Seventy percent had no criminal record, but 80 percent were in the country illegally.
“Obviously we have concerns about kids falling through the cracks, not getting sufficient attention if they need attention, not getting the emotional or mental health care that they need,” Leah Chavla, a lawyer with the Women’s Refugee Commission, told the Times. “This cannot be the right solution. We need to focus on making sure that kids can get placed with sponsors and get out of custody.”
According to ICE’s 2018 budget, it costs $750 a night to house a child in a “tent city,” more than five times the cost of a child bed in a detention center, which costs $139 per night. (Adult beds cost $133 each per night.) But immigration groups contend the cost is actually higher. “ICE estimates often lack in transparency and don’t reflect the true cost,” reported CNBC in June. “There’s been so much discrepancy that the U.S. Government Accountability Office looked into ICE’s budget requests and found that its methodology was inaccurate and recommended a change in the way it comes up with its cost estimates.”