Kids held in Trump's tent city in Tornillo tell us what it was really like

"I don't think I can erase it from my life."
January 25, 2019, 5:17pm
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TORNILLO, Texas — Tornillo, the controversial tent city in the desert outside El Paso, Texas, became a symbol of the Trump administration’s hard-line stance on immigration and drew protests from politicians and children’s advocates from around the country. But because access to the facility was tightly controlled, for months little was known about what happened on the inside.

That started to change in January after workers began dismantling the tents with cherry-pickers and hundreds of kids aged 13-17 were relocated to sponsor homes and other migrant detention facilities.

In conversations with VICE News, teens held at Tornillo said they feared being “reported” for breaking the camp’s rules — touching each other beyond a fist bump, making fun of other people, taking food into their tents, swearing, staying in bed too long, not listening to teachers, talking more than 10 minutes on the phone, or simply getting out of the single-file lines they had to stand in to do everything at the camp, including using the restroom.

“The whole time, we were scared if we did something they would report us,” said Luis Chamorro, a 17-year-old who arrived at Tornillo on Nov. 4 from Guatemala. “We had to be sitting, quiet, without talking too much, because they would report us.”

These “reports,” children say they were told, could impact their asylum cases, lead to their transfer to another facility, or cause them to be held in the shelter for longer.

A spokesperson for BCFS, the company that ran Tornillo, said no such punitive “report” system existed for minor infractions, and that direct care workers had no access to a reporting system used by the Office of Refugee Resettlement to track incidents like fights. But teens held in the camp said reports were a common threat workers used to enforce good behavior.

“I don't want to remember that I was in that place.”

“I don't want to remember that I was in that place. I don’t want to remember what happened,” said Deybin Gomez, a 17-year-old from Honduras who arrived at the camp in mid-December and who still wears the rubber prayer bracelets he got there. “I just want to live the present and forget the past, but no. It was a big experience and I don’t think I can erase it from my life.”

Tornillo, opened in June, was shut down by the Department of Health and Human Services in January after housing thousands of children who had crossed the border without parents or guardians. Originally intended as a temporary facility to stay open 30 days, it ballooned to nearly 3,000 minors aged 13-17 at its peak as the Trump administration struggled to manage increasing numbers of children in its custody.

As HHS took the camp down, camp workers shuttled hundreds of kids to El Paso International Airport early every morning. Accompanied by chaperones for the first portions of their trips, the kids were flown to sponsor families or other shelters all over the country.

VICE News met the children on flights and at baggage claim areas as they reunited with their families and spoke with six teens following their release to sponsor homes in Texas and New York. Each had spent between one and two months at the camp in November, December, and January. Most were unaccompanied minors who’d come to the U.S. from Guatemala or Honduras by themselves to meet family members who’d immigrated years before.

The children described very different experiences at Tornillo. Some said they felt the workers treated them humanely and that they made friends at the camp, and preferred it to the infamous “hieleras,” or “ice boxes,” that Border Patrol uses to hold newly apprehended migrants. Others described their days there as some of the most difficult experiences of their lives.

But the children did agree on some things. They described the camp as militaristic, with group names like Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie; highly regimented daily schedules; and strict rules about physical contact, orderly lines, and respect. They felt sad and lonely at many moments during their stay, and missed their families badly.

BCFS spokesperson Krista Piferrer said in a statement that the company was “unwavering” in providing “care, safety, comfort and support to the teens at Tornillo.” “We spent more than six months caring for teens who have been through traumatic experiences, and sought to treat each with utmost integrity and respect,” she said.

Arriving at Tornillo

When children arrived at Tornillo, they got vaccinated, filled out papers, and handed over prohibited items, like phones. As a form of orientation, they got walked around the camp, learning the grounds and the places where they would sleep, eat, and spend their days.

Some arrived late at night. For Deybin Gomez, this was disorienting. “The first day was really tough,” he said, speaking in monotone and often looking at the ground. “We had to wait until around 3 a.m. in the cold outside.”

“We were cold and hungry, but they didn’t seem to care,” he said.

“The first night in the shelter was very cold and sad,” said Ronald Carrasco, a quiet and nervous 17-year-old who’d traveled to the U.S. from Honduras to join his father, whom he hadn’t seen in 13 years. “I didn’t know anyone. I felt like I was alone, depressed.”

Others described the transition more positively. Selvin and Marvin Catun are both native speakers of Kekchi, an indigenous Mayan language, for whom Spanish is a second language. They came from Guatemala to the U.S.

“The first day in Tornillo wasn’t so bad,” said Selvin, 17, who spent 52 days in the camp. “Not as bad as la hielera.”

His cousin Marvin pointed out that the staff had given them clothes and shoes. He said it was the first time anyone had given him something like that.

“I didn't know if they'd send me back to Honduras or if they would give me another chance to be in the U.S.”

Erick Guifarro, a 15-year-old who’d been in the United States since 2016 and said he wound up in Tornillo as the result of a traffic stop with his uncle, also felt some relief when he got to the camp. “I was exhausted and a bit frustrated, and worried because I didn't know if they'd send me back to Honduras or if they would give me another chance to be in the U.S.,” he said.

“[The workers] told me they couldn't deport me because I was underage, and that I would get a second chance to be in this country.”

Living at Tornillo

The staff at Tornillo segregated the children by gender and separated them into groups of 20 per tent. They had direct care workers, or “teachers,” monitoring them at all times. BCFS maintained an 8-to-1 child-to-staff ratio at all times, and there were generally three direct care workers per tent.

Life inside the camp was highly regimented. Teens woke up in shifts and followed nearly the same schedule every day, from breakfast (eggs) to lights-out at 10:30 p.m.

They occasionally had special events like a junior firefighting squad, pizza parties, and painting nights, a BCFS spokesperson said, likening Tornillo to a summer camp or school.

“The purpose of that is to keep morale high,” the spokesperson said. She also provided letters to VICE News from children who’d spent time at the camp, thanking staff members for taking care of them.

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Photo: Daniel Vergara/VICE News

But for the most part, teens who spoke with VICE News said they often felt anxious and worried during their time at the camp, and that days were monotonous.

“Nothing changed — it was the exactly the same, all the time,” said Chamorro, who spent more than two months at Tornillo.

Any time the teens moved from place to place, they had to do so in single-file lines separated by an arm’s length.

“We felt like we were in the armed forces, moving in a line like soldiers,” said Carrasco, who arrived at the camp in November.

Over the course of the day, teens in Tornillo got just a single hour of class time that included some English and math, and played sports like soccer and volleyball. Classes were chaotic, Chamorro said, and kids often didn’t pay attention or played cards in the back.

In between, they had long periods of time in their tents, cleaning, drawing, and spending time with each other. The downtime could get to them.

“There were days that I didn’t do anything, or there wasn’t soccer, like a rainy day,” Guifarro said. “There were cold days we just spent in the dormitory, and if I wasn’t doing anything, I was just thinking about my family, and I would worry.”

“Out here you can use the phone, watch TV,” he said. “And in there, you don’t have any of that. The only thing you can do is sleep, but lots of kids can’t sleep during the day, and there was nothing to do, so we would get bored.”

After living at the camp, some started to believe that being sent home might not be the worst thing that could happen to them.

“I would hear from all the kids that they were tired of this,” Chamorro said. “They wanted to get out of there, they wanted to be deported.”

For Selvin Catun, Christmas was particularly difficult. It was his first away from home. “I would always spend Christmas with my family,” he said. “My father usually sells pineapples on Dec. 24. I thought nobody would be there to help him in Guatemala.”

"They watched over us all the time"

“Teachers,” or direct care workers, were the authority figures for the teens in the camp and a constant watchful presence. The kids found some of their teachers to be kind and supportive; others, not so much. “Some are racist, they look down on us,” Guifarro said. “But the majority of teachers treated us well.”

BCFS workers, who asked not to be named because they are not authorized to speak to the press, said they were prohibited from forging relationships with children in the facility, and that that was difficult.

The migrants also said certain workers were brusque and harsh with the children. “I couldn’t go anywhere alone without telling the teachers,” said Selvin Catun. “They’d yell at you if you went out.”

The close monitoring bothered the teens. “They watched over us all the time,” Chamorro said. “We couldn't even go to the bathroom alone.”

Gomez felt rejected by the workers tasked with caring for him. “It felt like we were worthless to them,” he said. “If you told them you were hungry, they would tell us that we were being too annoying, and that we weren’t in our countries, so we shouldn’t be asking for so much.”

“Even if we behaved properly, they were never happy with us.” he said. “They would tell us that most of the young people staying there wouldn't be let [into the U.S.] because there were way too many immigrants, and that we'd likely end up deported.”

A BCFS spokesperson said that constant monitoring was necessary but that threats were “unacceptable,” and that racism and inappropriate speech were not tolerated by the company. “If we knew of any such circumstances, action would have been taken swiftly,” the spokesperson said. “They would be removed immediately.” She noted that employees were expected to report such inappropriate behavior by staff.

“Our job is to comfort and uplift [the kids],” the spokesperson said. “I can’t in full confidence say that out of thousands and thousands of responders, nobody said something ugly, but I can tell you if we knew somebody said something ugly, they’d be gone immediately.”

17 rules

Teens had to follow strict rules in the facility. The most common one they cited was no physical contact, either with teachers or with each other; respecting teachers and each other; and always being monitored.

Orderly lines were also mandatory. “Constant lines, all the time,” Chamorro said. “We’d ask them why they’d do it that way, because it was too cold for us to be standing there all the time. They’d say we had to do it, because they also had rules they had to follow.”

One of the hardest things, teens said, was the 10-minute limit on phone calls to family twice a week. Guifarro would split that between his uncle and his mother. “I felt like it was nothing to speak for five minutes with my mom,” he said.

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“I would ask my sister how my mom was doing, and the rest of the family, and she’d tell me that everything was going fine,” said Chamorro. “But you’re never really sure.”

At the same time, they felt like they had to put on a good face for their families. “They would ask how I was holding up, and if I was OK,” said Gomez. “And I would tell them I was fine so they didn’t worry.”

A BCFS spokesperson said that lines and order were “common sense” rules for a camp of Tornillo’s magnitude, and that there were no formal rules about children making physical contact with each other, and that they sometimes hugged. But many children had the impression they were not allowed to touch each other.

The BCFS spokesperson provided VICE News with a list of 17 house rules, which she said were the only formalized rules for kids in the camp. They include “Be nice to one another,” “respect each other,” please be sure the dorm is neat and clean,” and finally, with emphasis, “WE WILL DO OUR BEST TO CARE FOR YOU IN THE SHORT TIME YOU ARE HERE!”.

Most importantly, BCFS denied that an official “report” system existed for minor infractions, and that only the Office of Refugee Resettlement could make decisions regarding children’s cases. “This is a perception thing, perhaps,” the spokesperson said. “We don't have the authority to make any sort of decision regarding their case or transfer or anything like that.”

Getting out

The teens VICE News spoke with looked back at the Tornillo experience with a mixture of emotions. They had had good experiences there along with bad ones, and they hoped to stay in touch with friends they’d made. But they were all supremely glad to have left.

“When the teacher told me I would be released, I was ecstatic,” Carrasco said. “I felt incredibly happy knowing that I'd finally leave the center.”

“I was leaving to be with my father,” he said. “It was nice because I didn't know him.”

Kids wanted to leave as quickly as possible. None knew anything about when that would be possible, and often didn’t learn until a day or so before leaving that they were getting out.

Guifarro, the 15-year-old who was in the U.S. for two years before being taken to Tornillo, said he had a newfound outlook on his life in the United States.

“Two months ago I didn't appreciate being in this country,” he said. “But now that I know that the majority of Central Americans go through those shelters, and now I know, we have to value the time God will keep us in the U.S.,” he said.

Deybin Gomez said he felt permanently changed by the experience. “I used to be a very happy person, I loved to talk to others,” he said. “Now this feeling has gone away. It’s like I feel very intimidated.”

Sitting on his bed in his sister’s Bronx apartment, Luis Chamorro pulled a black-and-white knitted winter hat he’d made at the facility out of the duffel he’d brought home with him. “I don’t wear this hat, because it reminds me of when I was in the shelter,” he said.

“It makes me sad to think about all that time I wasn’t with my family,” he said. “I prefer not to wear it and leave it here.”

Cover: Aerial photo of the tent city for migrant kids outside Tornillo, Texas. (Photo: Daniel Vergara/VICE News)