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Texas Migrant Tent City To Close By End Of January


A controversial government-contracted shelter for child migrants in the West Texas desert will shut down this month. It's a result of changes to the rules that govern the custody of migrant children. Nationally, those numbers have stopped growing and begun to fall. NPR's John Burnett reports.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: In the last two weeks, some 2,200 immigrant children, mostly teenage boys from Central America, have been released from custody around the country and allowed to join family already in the U.S. At the biggest shelter of them all, the tent city in Tornillo, Texas, they're driving more than a hundred kids a day to the El Paso airport to go be with adult sponsors. The population at Tornillo is down from nearly 3,000 last month to about 1,500 today, Health and Human Services confirms. This is the agency responsible for the care of migrant kids who arrive at the border without a parent or legal guardian. We all feel a sense of relief, said a senior official at the camp who asked not to be named because he wasn't authorized to speak to reporters. The official said he expects all of the children will be discharged by January 15, and the San Antonio nonprofit that runs the sprawling camp plans to vacate the bleak acreage by the end of the month when its contract runs out. They've already begun to demobilize.

JOSHUA RUBIN: I noticed one of the large tents being taken down, and, as of yesterday, another large tent is being taken down.

BURNETT: Joshua Rubin, a Brooklyn software developer turned immigrant activist, has been staying in an RV just outside the Tornillo gate. On his Facebook page, Witness: Tornillo, Rubin has posted photos of the shrinking tent city.

RUBIN: I've noticed that they've rolled out dozens of mobile offices, and I see vans full of kids heading out. These are all really hopeful signs.

BURNETT: Last month, the number of kids in custody nationwide was nearing a record 15,000. The shelter network had surpassed 90 percent capacity, and the contractor at Tornillo was saying they could not keep expanding. More and more protesters were denouncing the adolescent encampment. Child welfare advocates say holding youngsters in these refuges for weeks and months at a time, however well-meaning the care, is deleterious to their physical and mental health. So HHS made an abrupt rule change. They dropped the requirement that everyone in a sponsor's household had to be fingerprinted. That extra vetting slowed down the process. Now only the adult sponsors will get criminal background checks.

At the time, a senior HHS official told NPR the government makes lousy parents. Migrant advocates are cautiously hopeful, but there are still more than 12,000 children in the shelter system. Why haven't more been released, they ask. And why is the government expanding another unlicensed emergency shelter like Tornillo in South Florida? Amy Cohen is a child psychologist in Los Angeles who works with migrant children.

AMY COHEN: If in fact the government is interested in releasing children to sponsors in a more timely manner, there should be no reason for them to be expanding the beds at Homestead.

BURNETT: Health and Human Services confirms that a temporary influx facility located in a vacant Job Corps center in Homestead, Fla., is being expanded by a thousand beds. That's to handle the daily arrivals of unaccompanied migrant children who continue coming to the southern border. John Burnett, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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