Updated: In September, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced that the Tornillo detention center for migrant children will expand to 3,800 beds and will stay open at least through the end of the year. It initially opened in June with about 400 beds. A HHS spokesperson said increasing the size of the tent city, which is located near El Paso, isn’t due family separations but to an increase in children crossing without their families. According to a report in Texas Monthly, the expanded Tornillo camp will cost $100 million a month to operate.
In June, the U.S. government opened a new detention center in Tornillo, Texas, for migrant children forcibly separated from their families by the Justice Department’s new “zero tolerance” policy.
While journalists have not been granted access to the facility, which is located about 40 miles southeast of El Paso, photographs have been taken from the air and from outside the facility’s perimeter.
The detention center looks a lot like a refugee camp.
Under the new policy, which has been enforced since May, the Department of Homeland Security automatically charges all adults crossing the border with a misdemeanor—even asylum seekers—and labels their children as unaccompanied minors. Dozens of kids are now being placed into government custody each day, prompting the construction of the encampment.
An executive order was signed June 20 to supposedly stop family separation, but there is no immediate timeline to reunite over 2,000 kids with their families. As Dara Lind notes at Vox, “the infrastructure that’s been slapped together in the past several weeks to facilitate family separation will be succeeded by a slapped-together infrastructure to facilitate family detention—and deportation.”
Like the border wall—and the farcical prototype competition—the tent city at Tornillo has become yet another physical manifestation of the Trump administration’s immigration policy. And the images of these structures—strategically distributed by a government that does not allow access to photojournalists—are being used to promote its agenda.
But the design of these camps isn’t the question; the inhumane policy of forcibly separating children from their families is.
During a press conference on Monday about family separation, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen claimed the government was acting in the “best interest” of the children. “We have high standards,” she said. “We give them meals, we give them education, we give them medical care.”
The government provided images of the Tornillo facility intended to support her claims. In addition to Getty Images photographs that show children in brightly colored T-shirts walking through a compound of 16 large cloth tents, the Department of Health and Human Services released images showing interiors of two tents, one with 10 bunk beds and one with folding tables and chairs. There is an intake facility, outdoor portable toilets, a medical clinic, and an area where the children can play soccer.
Because of the tightly controlled images, we don’t know what the living conditions on a day-to-day basis are. We do know that the Tornillo detention center currently holds about 400 children, according to first-hand reports, and that the area is experiencing sweltering heat—the high temperatures every day this week are over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. There appear to be air-conditioning units attached to the tents.
The detainment camp can reportedly reach a capacity of 4,000. In addition, the government has created least three additional “tender age” shelters across the Rio Grande Valley for babies and toddlers. And hundreds of kids are now being flown to shelters all over the country, prompting a protest by a coalition of U.S. mayors.
Earlier this month, U.S. Customs and Border Control released a handful of government-approved images of another processing facility—one located in a former Walmart in McAllen, Texas. There, too, journalists were not allowed to bring cameras inside.
Those government photos (and video) show children held in cages made from chain-link fencing, sleeping on mats with foil emergency blankets, receiving meals, and watching television. There is also a photograph of a smiling teddy bear on a bed.
When reporters asked Secretary Nielsen about the photographs of children in cages, she said she had not seen them, and that “the image I want of this country is an immigration system that secures our border and upholds our humanitarian ideals.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described how the U.S. treats refugees in a statement for World Refugee Day, stating: “We will continue to help the world’s most vulnerable refugees, reflecting the deeply held values of the American people.”
The administration's leaders speak about humanitarianism and acting in the best interests of children. That’s how the detention centers are described as well, suggesting beds, television, and stuffed animals are what it means to treat a child well, ignoring the fact that children are experiencing trauma due to the spaces themselves, as noted by pediatricians who have visited the facilities.
Outside of the government-narrated version of events, an audio recording released by ProPublica from an unnamed border control center tells an entirely different story, one of wailing children, distressed parents, and dismissive guards.
One doesn’t have to look far into U.S. history books to find precedent for the tent cities: During World War II, the U.S. government forcibly relocated 117,000 people of Japanese descent, two-thirds of whom were native-born Americans, to camps.
In an editorial, former first lady Laura Bush wrote:
“Our government should not be in the business of warehousing children in converted box stores or making plans to place them in tent cities in the desert outside of El Paso. These images are eerily reminiscent of the internment camps for U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent during World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history.”
A story the New York Times published in 1942 described an internment camp for 10,000 people in California’s Owens Valley as if it were a model community, complete with grammar and high schools, church services, an “extensive recreation program,” and wood shops where detained people could make their own furniture.
The reporter didn’t interview any interned individuals about the facilities, but speculated that they would like them.
Another 1942 New York Times story framed the relocation as an “adventure” and as “pioneering.” Newspapers showed smiling children playing baseball and called the internment camps “boom towns.”
We now know that these camps were plagued with harsh, overcrowded, and substandard living conditions, and the interned were exploited for labor.
It’s also worth noting that among the families sent to World War II internment camps, some were not reunited for years.
Yesterday, former Immigration and Customs Enforcement acting director John Sandweg said that the current policies could lead to thousands of children being permanently separated from their families—children orphaned by the U.S. government.
This story was updated to include the executive order signed June 20 and information about additional shelters being used to detain separated children.