"Dumb, stupid" family separations harm children, says detention camp manager
A senior manager at a child detention camp in Texas, close to the Mexican border, spoke out on Monday to decry Donald Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy that had been tearing migrant families apart as “dumb”.
Speaking to journalists in what he said was an individual capacity, at the end of a special, supervised media tour of the facility in Tornillo, near El Paso, Texas, the manager, who asked not to be named, called family separations “a dumb, stupid decision”.
“All it did was harm children,” he said. The manager works for the private contractor BCFS, which is running the camp on behalf of the federal government.
“This operation would not be necessary had it not been for the separation.”
Despite an executive order from the president last week ordering that families would no longer be separated, 23 children at the camp in Tornillo remain apart from their parents or guardians, after crossing the border with them.
At the controversial facility of 22 large tents on the outskirts of the tiny town in western Texas, journalists were told that in addition to the 23 children who had been separated, 326 had entered the US by themselves.
Only 14 of the 326 children were girls, who are housed in separate tents from the boys.
The Guardian and a small group of other journalists toured the site on Monday morning after pressure on government agencies to show more transparency.
The government says it has made a start on reuniting the more than 2,000 children who have been separated from their parents. But the process has clearly only just begun.
In sweltering heat in the dusty little town, where fencing keeps the camp of neat brown tents mostly out of sight of the public, the manager said: “I’m totally against the separation.”
The children appeared to be well taken care of in terms of their basic physical needs. During the press tour, several dozen boys were seen playing soccer on an artificial grass field. A few teenage boys and girls told the Guardian they were “good”.
The contractor BCFS Health and Human Services is based in San Antonio, Texas, and is a contractor regularly used by the Department of Health and Human Services and other federal government agencies.
The contractor normally builds these types of shelters after natural disasters.
The 13- to 17-year-old children are under the care of the US Department of Health and Human Services while the facility is under the control of the Department of Homeland Security.
Under a blistering summer day in the desert, around 30 boys played soccer on a recently-constructed artificial grass field.
Afterward, they took shelter in the shade of a tent and drank water. The boys appeared to be healthy and well cared for.
Staff at the Tornillo facility said most boys enjoy playing soccer and watching World Cup games on a live feed provided for them. The boys echoed this sentiment when the Guardian asked them who their favorite teams were in the World Cup. Most responded with “Brazil” or “Mexico”.
Government officials from HHS ran the media tour and told reporters to limit what they said to the children. Journalists were told only to exchange general pleasantries with the them.
After visiting the facilities for the boys, reporters asked to be able to see the girls, who seemed, during the short visit by the media, less outwardly happy in their surroundings than the boys.
The Guardian was shown the 20 tents where the boys live, which are arranged military-style in two rows of 10. Each tent is equipped with 20 beds. The tents were sturdy and clean.
Toys, books and educational materials were available – although some of it was in English. The Tornillo facility also includes medical staff, medical trucks, private showers and toilet facilities.
Those toilets and showers are the only place where the children aren’t constantly watched.
Inside a mobile command post, more than a dozen contractors watch over the migrants through security cameras. Large monitors and computer screens show the status of different children in the compound.
Officials with the federal government defend the controversial shelter, which the contractor was able to build in just a few days.
“We saw that we were getting close to capacity,” said Mark Weber, a spokesperson for HHS.
He explained that the children in Tornillo were brought from different HHS facilities as the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy began to swell the number of migrants is custody.
Only 23 children at Tornillo were separated from their parents – the rest crossed the border as unaccompanied minors. Weber said three children separated from their parents have already been reunited with parents or guardians. According to Weber and the contractor, the 23 remaining separated migrants have made contact with family or friends in the US.
The contractor who criticized the Trump separation policy is also worried about the fate of the babies being cared for at other facilities. Because they’re not able to talk, parent identification can be harder.
“There should be a DNA test,” the contractor said.
Weber from HHS was asked by the Guardian if the government will conduct DNA testing to prevent orphaned children. “We’ll consider everything,” he said, adding that parents and children are tracked by HHS and DHS throughout the process. However, many immigrants and their advocates have expressed frustration with the process.
During the tour, the media was also shown the call center where the teenagers are able to contact their families. Each child is monitored by a staff member who places the call and verifies the parent’s information before handing the phone to the child. Each child gets several calls per week.
The future of these children remains in question. The contractor said his contract – which he estimates will cost $10m – ends on 13 July. “My tasking is for 30 days,” he said.