A Texas “tent city” that was supposed to temporarily house a few hundred undocumented migrant children has swelled to a permanent “child prison” for thousands and needs to be shuttered, Democratic lawmakers said on Saturday.
Democratic U.S. Reps. Beto O’Rourke and Judy Chu joined U.S. Sens. Mazie Hirono, Jeff Merkley, and Tina Smith in touring the Tornillo facility outside El Paso, which now houses 2,800 teenagers at a cost to taxpayers of $1 million a day, the Associated Press reported. They urged the contractor that operates the West Texas facility, BCFS Health and Human Services, to reject renewing its contract with the government when it expires on Dec. 31.
That seems like a long shot, but the lawmakers hope that speaking out on the issue will generate enough of a public backlash against the site to get it shut down.
“It is inhumane. It is a child prison. It has no right to exist,” Chu said, the AP reported.
O’Rourke, who is considering a 2020 bid for the White House, said he was disturbed after briefly meeting with some of the detained children, who appeared ill at ease about speaking with the congressional delegation.
“They kind of nodded their heads, but what are they going to say when everyone around them is watching?” O’Rourke said, according to the AP. “But there was something in the look on their faces that we saw, the way that they weren’t really engaged in the sports that they were playing out on those fields.”
Of the 2,800 kids, about 800 have sponsors willing to receive them, but the process is being delayed by slow background checks and fingerprinting, the lawmakers said, according to The Texas Tribune. O’Rourke added that at least 170 potential sponsors have been arrested, mostly due to their immigration status.
“My request of the contractor was not to renew the contract unless [the Department of Health and Human Services] stops sharing information with ICE,” O’Rourke said, the Tribune reported. “There is no reason to spend $144 million going forward and to keep these kids locked up.”
Citing HHS, the Tribune said about 6,000 children have been held at the Tornillo site since it was opened last June. Roughly 3,100 have been released.
As of last Thursday, a staggering 14,700 unaccompanied children were being held at 100 shelters in 17 states, according to CNN. The shelters are 92% full. Most of those children come from the violent Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
On Sunday, Merkley, who also is pondering a run for the presidency in 2020, said the situation with detained migrant children in the U.S. is a “deliberate effort to inflict trauma on children” by the Trump administration.
Chu said that lawmakers would hold a hearing on the situation when Democrats take control of the House in January.