TORNILLO, Texas — The tent city for migrant children in the desert outside El Paso, Texas, is coming down — and quickly.
Hastily built over the summer to house migrant children, it became a symbol of the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their families. Now trucks carrying lumber, toilets, and portable offices are rumbling out of the facility, and workers using cherry-pickers are tearing down the massive tents.
After pressure from lawmakers and public outrage, BCFS, the nonprofit operating the camp under contract for the U.S. government, said in December it would no longer accept new children at the facility, and the Department of Health and Human Services confirmed the camp would close.
As of Monday night, 850 children were still in the camp, HHS spokesperson Evelyn Stauffer told VICE News, which held 2,800 children at its peak in December. Vans operated by BCFS have been ferrying dozens of children to the El Paso International Airport each day.
As of last week, the camp held 1,500 unaccompanied minors, meaning it has released more than half of its population over the past five days. “Our goal is to close Tornillo as quickly but as safely as possible,” Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Mark Weber told VICE News on Friday.
HHS says it is releasing children both to their sponsors, who are often family members, as well as to permanent shelter facilities. More children are now being released to sponsor families since HHS lifted its requirement that every member of the household undergo an FBI fingerprint background check. The agency has not answered questions about how many of the children have gone to sponsors versus shelters.
There were 11,400 children in the overall shelter network run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement as of Monday night, HHS said. That’s 1,000 less than the 12,400 reported by the agency on Jan. 2.
Nearly every day of the week, dozens of children arrive in vans to the airport in the morning with chaperones from BCFS.
On Friday, a group of about 40 arrived at the airport early in the morning. The children’s chaperones were dressed in plain clothes rather than the uniforms contractors wore at the facility in Tornillo. The children wore nametags around their necks and wristbands that designated them as unaccompanied minors for the airlines.
Much like inside the camp, they were separated by gender and closely supervised by adults who accompany them on at least the first legs of the flights through hubs like Dallas and Chicago. They checked in quietly in groups at the gate, and then went through security, where chaperones escorted them onto the planes.
At the camp itself, the process of disassembling the makeshift tents, offices, and other facilities is well underway. Tent materials, astroturf for soccer fields, and electric generators have all been hauled out over the past week. The skeleton of a massive tent was visible from the back end of the camp Monday, as was a dumpster full of bed frames.
HHS has not announced the final date of closure for the camp, but if the current breakdown rate continues, Tornillo could have no children left by next week.
Cover: Construction at Tornillo on Jan. 7, 2019 (Photo: Mimi Dwyer/VICE News)