Rep. Beto O'Rourke has been a vocal opponent of detaining migrant children. File Photo by Sergio Flores/UPI | License Photo
MEXICO CITY, Dec. 14 (UPI) -- U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke plans to tour the tent city for migrant youth in Tornillo, Texas, on Saturday for the second time.
The Trump administration established the facility near El Paso in mid-June with 300 beds as temporary housing for migrant children, mostly Central Americans, for whom there was no space in existing shelters. Since the summer, Tornillo's population has surged to about 3,000, mostly adolescent boys. The federal government operates another "temporary influx shelter" in Homestead, Fla.
O'Rourke, a Democrat from El Paso, has opposed the detention of migrant children and their separation from their families. When Tornillo began to receive unaccompanied migrant children in June, O'Rourke led a Father's Day protest outside the facility.
"We are here today to bear witness," O'Rourke said at that rally outside the Tornillo land port of entry, "So that it is on the conscience of every single one of us. I want all of us to own it. I want that burden to be so uncomfortable that it forces us to act to place public pressure on those in position of trust and public power to do the right thing in this country."
A few days later, O'Rourke received a brief tour of the facility with Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, and Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.
O'Rourke at the time was seeking to unseat U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in November's midterm elections. The El Paso congressman's campaign speeches repeatedly denounced the Trump administration's immigration policies, including the Tornillo camp, the border wall, zero tolerance and family separation.
He lost the vote to Cruz by 3 percentage points. No Democrat has won statewide office in Texas since the 1990s.
As Tornillo's population has increased, its budget has ballooned. In September, UPI reported the government would pay $367 million to Baptist Child and Family Services the non-profit emergency management contractor running the facility. O'Rourke's office calculates that through the end of this year, "the tent city could cost taxpayers $430 million," according to a press release.
The number of unaccompanied migrant children in federal shelters run by contractors has shot up dramatically since President Donald Trump took office. In May 2017, about 2,400 unaccompanied children were in migrant shelters. In December 2018, 15,000 children are in shelters.
Much of the increase is driving by the administration's tightening of criteria for migrant children to be released to sponsors, such as parents, close relatives or other adults. The Department of Health and Human Services oversees migrant children programs and now requires fingerprints and background checks to release youth to sponsors.
These background checks take time, creating a backlog of children who may spend on average 59 days in government shelters, according to HHS data. The agency also shares background check data with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and, with some relatives undocumented, sponsors run the risk of deportation if they submit to these checks.
This week ICE reported it had arrested 170 undocumented immigrants who came forward to sponsor children in shelters.
The Office of the Inspector General for HHS reported recently that BCFS had failed to conduct background checks using fingerprints for staff who work at Tornillo. The OIG also found that BCFS was not providing a sufficient number of mental health professionals to service the needs of the 3,000 children at Tornillo, labeling the staffing as "dangerous low."
"We are warehousing them on a temporary basis in Tornillo," O'Rourke said Friday at one of his last town hall meetings with constituents in El Paso. His term ends this month.
O'Rourke said he plans to ask about professional support for children at Tornillo when he meets with representatives of DHHS, ORR and BCFS. He will tour the facility Saturday with other Democratic members of Congress in a delegation led by Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon. This summer, Merkley attracted attention when he attempted an impromptu visit of an ICE detention facility in South Texas. ICE refused to permit Merkley's visit.
Merkley and O'Rourke will be joined by Sens. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, and Tina Smith, D-Minn., along with Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif. The delegation plans to hold a press conference outside Tornillo after their visit.