Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
Over a period of seven months, a vast temporary facility built to hold migrant children emerged in the Texas border town of Tornillo. And now, it’s almost gone.
Rugged, sepia-colored land stretches for miles around the Marcelino Serna Port of Entry in the small town of Tornillo, Texas. This border gateway across from Guadalupe, Mexico, was known as the Tornillo Port of Entry until 2016, when it was re-named after Private Marcelino Serna, a Mexican citizen who crossed illegally into Texas in 1916 and enlisted in the U.S. Army. He went on to become the most decorated Texas soldier of World War I.
A few years ago, the government had big plans to develop a trade corridor here, acquiring a large swath of the surrounding land through eminent domain. But the project hit some snags, and the commercial traffic never really took off. Instead, this corner of West Texas about 40 miles from El Paso became known for something very different: a tent city built here in June 2018 to house migrant children in the government’s custody.
Thanks to Trump administration policies that extended government custody of migrant children, the number of kids detained at Tornillo rose dramatically over a period of several months. As the population expanded, the facility’s footprint grew; at its peak, in December, it boasted more than 100 tents and was the largest migrant child shelter in the country. The kids were between 13 and 17 years old, and hailed from Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and some other countries.
“It's kind of ironic that a port of entry that was developed for reasons that should have served to create better relationships with our counterparts on the Mexican side is being used to jail kids,” said David Stout, an El Paso County Commissioner. “It’s quite a far reach from its original purpose.”
Over its seven-month lifetime, upwards of 6,000 children were held at the Tornillo tent city. Now, it is disappearing: The last child left on January 11.
BREAKING: I just talked with the management at the Tornillo facility - the last kid just left. This tent city should never have stood in the first place but it is welcome news that it will be gone.— Rep. Will Hurd (@HurdOnTheHill) January 11, 2019
In his book, Camps: A Guide to 21st Century Space, architect Charlie Hailey creates a classification of shelters like the Tornillo facility, which he describes as structures that exist “between the temporary and permanent” and reflect a “confluence of mental and social space.” Some facilities, like summer camps and protest sites, are autonomous communities; others, like post-hurricane emergency shelters, emerge in times of necessity. And then there are spaces like Tornillo’s tent city, which are organized around controlling certain groups. A camp can fall under more than one category—but regardless of type, it always reveals something about the people who made it and those who live in it.
“How and why camps are made, where they are located, and how long they endure reveal problems and possibilities associated with our built environment,” Hailey writes. “Because of their rapid deployment and temporal nature, camps … provide an important gauge of local and global situations.”
The tent city in Tornillo told stories, both local and global: In a sense, it reflected the marginalization of the border town in which it was briefly located. And absent the border wall whose funding standoff has closed the U.S. government for three weeks and counting, this complex of incarcerated children became perhaps the clearest physical expression of the cruelty and chaos of the Trump-era response to southern migration.
Initially, the tent city was supposed to be open for only a month. But July and then August came and went. In September 2018, Human Rights Watch obtained aerial images of the site that showed that the number of tents had quadrupled since June—from 28 to 101. The facility expanded that month to 3,800 beds, and would remain through the end of the year, because the government needed more space to house children in its custody. With other shelters at capacity, migrant kids were being funneled into Tornillo in the middle of the night, the New York Times reported.
“It was super massive,” said Mary Gonzalez, a representative in the state legislature whose district includes Tornillo. “This installation is bigger than the town of Tornillo.”
The expansion of the camp reflected a much larger problem—one that critics noted was manufactured by the administration itself.
The Tornillo facility opened just days after President Donald Trump called an end to his administration’s months-long “zero tolerance” policy, following an immense public outcry. Through that policy, Border Patrol agents separated migrant families crossing the border, referring the adults for criminal prosecution. They labeled the children as “unaccompanied alien” minors and handed them over to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary John Kelly noted at the time that this family separation policy was intended to be “a deterrent” for future waves of migrants. Some of these separated kids ended up in Tornillo.
In the chaos that followed the official end to the policy, the government continued to separate children in cases where it claimed—often without evidence—that the parents had criminal links. But the main driver of a sharp increase in detained children was an onerous strengthening of HHS vetting procedures for potential sponsors. Breaking with tradition, the agency also agreed to share information about eligible adults who came forward to take in the children—many of whom were undocumented parents or family members of the children—with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). As a result, ICE arrested 170 such individuals and placed them in deportation proceedings, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Most of these arrestees had no criminal records.
Because of the fear of being targeted, fewer family members stepped up to sponsor. And those who did often got stuck in bureaucratic limbo. That meant much longer stays for children in custody: What was before roughly a 30-day wait became a 60-to-70 day wait. By December, the federal government was overseeing 15,000 migrant children. At the peak, nearly 3,000 of them were being held in Tornillo; the rest were at other “temporary” Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) facilities in Homestead, Florida, or in permanent facilities across the country.
These “temporary” facilities were justified as necessary because of the high influx of unaccompanied minors. But the total number apprehended crossing the border in 2018 was actually lower than the surge in 2014, when the Obama administration briefly refashioned military bases into temporary shelters.
Among Tornillo residents, the emergence of the tent city presented a dilemma. Its presence arguably brought some economic benefits to the surrounding area: As the facility grew, jobs opened up. There were teaching and childcare positions based there, and a bump in motel bookings and restaurant foot traffic because of the out-of-towners who worked at the facility.
Some didn’t have qualms with this arrangement, reasoning that the accommodations were likely better than wherever the kids had come from. But local activists lamented the grave moral costs of detaining children. Many saw this tent city that sprouted up at the border crossing as something else, too—a sign of the distorted perception Washington, D.C., the news media, and the general public have long held had about border communities.
“It’s based on the sense that the border is some dangerous place that that has to be controlled, and that the people who are crossing the border are dangerous people that have to be kept away from the rest of society,” said Robert Moore, the El Paso-based journalist who covered the rise and fall of the Tornillo tent city for Texas Monthly. “So we [wound] up with this very visible scar in our community.”
The facility was erected in one of the poorest parts of El Paso County—an area that has been quietly dealing with its own local problems: Tornillo has endured arsenic in its drinking water for decades and its poverty is almost triple the national rate. “It would be transformative to invest [the] money [spent on Tornillo] to getting water, wastewater infrastructure, roads, streetlights, sidewalks—those things that the little town doesn’t have,” said Gonzalez, the state representative.
She and other elected officials representing the area regret that it’s the tent city that put Tornillo on the map, not its history, its agricultural resources, or the generosity of its binational community. Politicians on both sides of the aisle tend to use “the border” as a metaphor for lawlessness and chaos—though facts don’t support that image—and to justify walls, militarization, and surveillance. But Tornillo, El Paso, and its surrounding areas, are real places with real people. Many local families in Tornillo have roots in the mid-20th century Bracero program, which brought millions of Mexicans to America for work. Before that, Tornillo was the source of 90 percent of the cotton grown in the El Paso Valley. Today, some residents still grow cotton, pecans, and alfalfa. Others keep bees.
“Tornillo wasn’t really known, hasn’t been known, and probably after this, may not even be remembered,” said Gonzalez. “But I wish [it] would have been known for being this loving, humble community on the border that’s kind of resilient and trying to make its own way.”
In mid-October, a 67-year-old man named Joshua Rubin drove from his home in Brooklyn to Tornillo in his RV. He camped outside the tent city, and started documenting everything he saw there on a Facebook group called “Witness: Tornillo.” He wanted to make sure the lives of the children held at the facility weren’t erased from public memory.
“The place is kind of the middle of nowhere. It’s designed to forget these kids,” Rubin said. “Go to anywhere in the United States and ask, ‘Where is Tornillo?’ No one knows. Even people who live around here often don’t even know how to get here.”
The facility, he told me, was “a strange articulation of public and private.” It was built on federal land, which the government argued made it exempt from legal requirements that a shelter that holds migrant children typically has to fulfill, such as state licensing and appropriate education services. But it was operated by BCFS Health and Human Services Emergency Management, a company known for providing emergency services following major disasters like Hurricane Katrina. The facility’s infrastructure—everything from tents and generators to water—had to be trucked in. Sewage was trucked out. The town of Tornillo didn’t have a fire department, but its tent city did, since BCFS provided that service in-house.
ORR facilities are generally quite tight-lipped to protect the privacy of the children in their custody, but Tornillo was particularly cloaked in secrecy. Journalists and some elected officials were allowed on tightly controlled tours—no cameras allowed. All images and videos for public consumption were disseminated by HHS. Everyone who worked or provided services there signed agreements forbidding them to speak about their experience publicly.
Here’s a rough portrait of life on the inside, based on interviews with several sources familiar with the operation: Workers were bused in at 5 a.m. for the first of two 12-hour shifts every day. Most came in from other parts of the state and beyond. But some were local. One former employee who lived in El Paso and was not allowed to speak publicly said they were paid $18 an hour—an attractive salary for that area. Care workers supervised the kids everywhere—to the bathroom, to the classroom, and to sleep—in a one-to-eight ratio. No employee was allowed to touch the children, except for giving fist bumps.
BCFS officials said they were not asked to provide educational materials, but did so anyway in consultation with two certified principals. A lawyer who visited the facility in October, however, told me that the classes and educational materials were sorely lacking. “It was kind of a joke,” the lawyer said.
According to a government watchdog report, mental health services were also insufficient, posing “substantial risks“ to the children there. In the girls’ units, a notice written in highly technical Spanish recommended that girls call a hotline number for an institution called “Sisters for Life” in case of pregnancy. “I’m suspecting… that they’re not interested in providing information about abortion services,” the lawyer said. (HHS declined to comment directly on this observation; BCFS maintains it complied with government requirements.)
The biggest concern at Tornillo appeared to be the length of time children were kept in the facility—some were there for a majority of the facility’s lifetime. The American Academy of Pediatrics warns that “even brief detention can cause psychological trauma and induce long-term mental health risks” among children. The lawyer, who spoke with several kids, said that they seemed cheerful, but had been led to believe they were being let out. A few weeks later, the lawyer’s colleague spoke to the same children and found that they were despondent.
In November, news reports revealed that the government had waived the required employee FBI checks for the more than 2,000 employees at Tornillo, sparking concern about potential abuse. Several reports have recently come up about egregious cases of sexual, physical, and drug abuse at other ORR facilities, and BCFS has been criticized in the past for non-compliance with government health and safety rules. But no such abuse surfaced in Tornillo in the 7 months it was operational.
“The abuse was structural rather than situational,” said Rubin, who maintained his vigil outside the facility for more than three months. He was never allowed inside; instead he talked to workers, truck drivers, bus drivers, and others who entered and left. By November, Rubin wasn’t alone: A mass of protesters grew up outside the fences, ebbing and flowing day-to-day—campers and cars with folding chairs and port-a-potties in tow.
This gathering became a smaller camp (one of autonomy, per Hailey’s taxonomy) rooted in its opposition to the tent city. The protesters posted photos of sunsets; they strummed guitars, sang Christmas carols, and yelled chants. Some employed more aggressive tactics, blocking the shelter’s entrance. On the tall fence around the facility, people hung paper flowers and signs that read Los queremos libres. (“We want them free.”)
BCFS had been wanting out, too. Vice recently reported that the facility’s private operator wrote a letter in December to HHS refusing to take in more children. Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress had been amping up pressure—criticizing the facility both on humanitarian grounds and for how much it was costing taxpayers. The Trump administration had already spent 50 percent more than it had disclosed, an Associated Press investigation found: Housing the children was costing $1,200 a day, not $775.
In a press call in early December, Democratic representatives Rosa DeLauro and Lucille Roybal-Allard revealed that the White House asked for $190 million more for housing migrant children, and Democrats were in no mood to give it. “I strongly object to the inclusion of this anomaly in any spending package,” DeLauro told reporters, calling for the shutdown of the Tornillo facility. “Over my dead body will they get one more nickel.”
In mid-December, the groundwork for Tornillo’s closure was officially laid when the government announced that it would be loosening the background checks it required for potential sponsors, which was holding up the release of kids in custody. “The children should be home with their parents,” Lynn Johnson, the assistant secretary at the Administration for Children and Families at HHS, told NPR at the time. “The government makes lousy parents.”
As winter settled in, the “Witness: Tornillo” participants watched as structures were disassembled and trucked away. In early January, they noticed (and posted photos of) something else: soccer balls that the incarcerated kids had kicked over the fence. Many of them had been signed with their names, almost as if they were saying, “We were here.”
The children held inside the tent city were swiftly processed out. On January 2, 2019, 1,500 children remained and were being released as “quickly and safely as possible,” the HHS said. By January 11, all of them had left—most of them to sponsors; some to other ORR facilities.
Rubin started driving back home to New York on January 7, stopping for speaking engagements on the way. The first stop was Dallas, where he told locals: “I’ve spent three months in the desert, and I’ll not come back the same.”
For opponents of Trump’s immigration policy, the sheer scale of Tornillo’s tent city made it a compelling symbol of the administration’s determination to use migrants as political weapons. But its form also mirrored other encampments from America’s past: the Memphis settlements that housed sharecroppers evicted for trying to vote; the “squatter camps” that emerged in the outskirts of cities after the Civil War. Such spaces often appear the fringes of blocks, cities, and counties, and reflect the marginal social status of their inhabitants.
Perhaps the clearest historical parallel for what happened in Tornillo was the Japanese-American internment camps—the prison-like barracks set up on barren land, far from the public eye, where more than 100,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry were held during World War II. Even though reports of explicit abuse were apparently rare, these internment camps stripped away the agency of their residents to lasting effect. Similar to Tornillo, these were camps of control, per Hailey’s classification, justified as necessary response to a perceived threat—where, as philosopher Giorgio Agamben argued, “states of emergency or legal exception have become the rule,” Hailey writes.
Families have been separated and children have been detained before, and the government does need to temporarily shelter kids who cross the border unaccompanied before they’re placed with sponsors. But the tent city in Tornillo became “an unfortunate shorthand,” Moore said, for a tangle of Trump-era policies and practices.
“It just dramatized—probably in a good way, because we shouldn't have kids incarcerated for immigration status—the reality of what we’re doing,” Gonzalez said.
By the end of January, the tent city will be completely dismantled, and the site go return to shrubs and arid land. But for the children who were lived here—many of whom are facing months of uncertainty as their immigration cases proceed—its imprint is likely to be more permanent. That’s why some believe the camp should be preserved in some form.
I recently spoke with a woman who grew up in El Paso and had started following the posts on the “Witness: Tornillo” Facebook group, which now has 4,600 members. She’d also visited an ORR facility in Tucson, Arizona, she said, but isn’t allowed to speak about that experience publicly. That visit haunted her: At night, she said, she searches on Facebook for the names of the children she met there, hoping to finding out what happened to them. She doesn’t want this episode of American history to just get swept under the rug and forgotten.
“Keeping the Tornillo tent city and encouraging people to walk through it will make sure people don’t forget that we did this,” she told me. “I think the land picks up the energy, the sadness, the depression, and the violation.”