Kevin Dinnin, the CEO of the contractor that ran the controversial tent city for migrant children in Tornillo, Texas, says the facility is closing down because he refused the government’s request to detain more youths there.
Shrouded in secrecy since it opened in June to handle overflow of the Trump administration’s family separation policy, the facility at Tornillo became a symbol of the administration’s mass detention of undocumented children. Originally built to hold 400 migrant teens sent from its permanent facilities and slated to close within 30 days, by December it had ballooned to a large complex holding more than 2,800 children.
“The children were coming in but never leaving,” Dinnin said in an exclusive interview with VICE News. The president and CEO of the nonprofit BCFS, which ran the facility under contract with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said he was dismayed the U.S. government kept asking him to expand the camp.
Ultimately, he came to believe that HHS would continue sending migrant teenagers to Tornillo as long as it could. So on Dec. 17, Dinnin sent HHS a letter informing them that his nonprofit wouldn’t accept more children at the facility.
“We as an organization finally drew the line,” Dinnin, who oversaw day-to-day operations at Tornillo, said. “You can’t keep taking children in and not releasing them.”
Soon after receiving the letter, HHS began taking steps toward closing Tornillo, including rapidly releasing the migrant youths. HHS denied that Dinnin’s letter led the agency to close the facility.
Dinnin also claimed that a Trump administration official told him in August that if he didn’t keep the facility open and expanding, any new minors apprehended would be kept in Border Patrol holding cells — essentially jail cells — instead of being transferred to Tornillo.
The official who allegedly made that statement, Scott Lloyd, was the director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is part of HHS and manages Tornillo. Lloyd left his position at ORR in November. Neither HHS nor ORR responded directly on whether Lloyd made that statement. Requests for comment to Lloyd’s new office, HHS’ Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives, were redirected to HHS.
“The children were coming in but never leaving.”
A spokeswoman for HHS rejected the idea that the agency would keep minors in Border Patrol custody. “Our job is to have beds, and so we are going to find space,” spokeswoman Evelyn Stauffer said.
Dinnin described the job of running the facility as a thankless task, and one his organization took on grudgingly with the kids’ best interests in mind. “We were doing what we were told to do,” he said. “We did as much as we could to make life as good as possible given the circumstances.”
Dinnin hoped the Dec. 17 letter would result in the government lifting a requirement that anyone living in the house of a sponsor get fingerprinted before accepting migrant children into their custody, which had been the primary barrier to releasing teens from the facility. The requirement created a bureaucratic bottleneck, while also deterring many sponsors with undocumented family members from finishing the vetting process.
Teen migrants walk in line inside the Tornillo facility on Dec. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)
A day after Dinnin sent the letter, HHS announced that it would no longer require the fingerprinting process for people living in the same house as sponsors.
HHS’ Stauffer denied that Dinnin’s refusal to accept more children factored into the government’s decision to lift the fingerprint requirements.
The agency confirmed on January 8 that Tornillo was closing and that the “vast majority” of the migrants would be released by the end of the month. HHS told VICE News that most of the teens were released to sponsors.
The facility has been torn down rapidly since the beginning of the year, and Dinnin told VICE News the last child would be released Friday. All traces of the makeshift city — which employed 2,000 people in December — will be gone by the end of January.
In the past week, the government has sent between 150 and 200 teenagers a day to sponsors, Dinnin said, most of whom are family members. He said before the fingerprint requirement was lifted, only 20 to 30 teens were released each day.
“It’s a plight of desperate people.”
About 300 teenagers held there who don’t have sponsors, or whose sponsors haven’t been vetted, are being transferred to other government-run facilities for undocumented minors, according to Dinnin.
“The children want to get to their families. Under any circumstance, I don’t think it’s right that a child be held in care longer than necessary to ensure their safe placement,” Dinnin said.
BCFS, which has been scrutinized over the conditions at Tornillo, has a checkered history. The nonprofit is one of the biggest government contractors for migrant detention facilities, operating multiple permanent shelters for undocumented children around the country. It ran the facility at Tornillo under a $430 million government contract.
In 2016, state officials cited the nonprofit for “housing children in substandard conditions that included moldy carpets, rusty bathrooms and exposed nails in a bed,” while staff were “accused of inappropriate relationships with children in care,” according to a CNN investigation. Responding to those violations, Dinnin said: “We are not perfect, but we try our best to operate the best facilities we can have.”
Little is known about the services and conditions at Tornillo. Throughout the fall, thousands of migrant teenagers were transferred to the tent city in the dead of night. Congressmen and reporters — including a VICE News journalist — have at times been denied access to the facility, while tours provided for media and lawmakers offered limited access. Immigrant rights activists characterize it as a prison, noting, among other things, the lack of education offered.
In November, the Office of Inspector General issued a report criticizing ORR and BCFS for not conducting FBI fingerprint background checks of 1,300 staff members working at the facility and failing to provide “adequate mental health care” to the children housed there.
Dinnin claimed ORR instructed him not to provide schooling because Tornillo was considered a temporary shelter, and that he hired teachers in September. Dinnin also said ORR waived the fingerprint background-checks requirement — the inspector general’s report said ORR was unaware the checks weren’t happening — and that the agency had only budgeted for one counselor per 100 children.
ORR and HHS did not respond to a request for comment on these allegations.
In an email, an HHS spokesperson said the agency and BCFS have "worked as a collaborative team providing vital care" to unaccompanied minors in a "safe and compassionate environment."
Dinnin defended the tent city as the least-bad option for the migrant children.
The closure of Tornillo comes amid Trump’s renewed attack on undocumented immigrants, including a nationally televised primetime address from the Oval Office Tuesday in which he stoked fear of undocumented migrants to try to bolster support for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, an idea that most Americans oppose. The speech came as the U.S. government has been shut down for three weeks over Trump’s refusal to sign a spending bill that doesn’t allocate $5.7 billion to build the wall.
But his administration has backpedaled on some of its most hard-line policies impacting migrant children because of public outrage — most notably the family separations that led to Tornillo’s creation.
As for what’s next for the kids, Dinnin expects most of them to begin working. Many reached the U.S. because their families contracted smugglers to bring them, and now the minors are responsible for paying off the debt.
“It’s a plight of desperate people,” he said.
Cover: This undated file photo provided by the Administration for Children and Families, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, shows the shelter used to house unaccompanied migrant children in Tornillo, Texas. (HHS' Administration for Children and Families via AP, File)