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Immigrant children are led by staff in single file between tents at a detention facility next to the Mexican border in Tor...

All migrant children to be moved from Tornillo, once the largest U.S. shelter for migrant children

What was once widely reported to be the largest shelter for migrant children in the U.S. will be empty by this weekend, a senior official at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services confirmed to the PBS NewsHour.

All children being held at the emergency detention camp will have been transferred to another facility in the agency’s shelter network or discharged to a sponsor, Lynn Johnson, assistant secretary of HHS’ Administration for Children and Families, said in a statement.

News of the facility’s pending closure first came from a Texas congressman Friday morning.

Republican Rep. Will Hurd, whose district includes the Tornillo facility, tweeted that “the last kid just left” the emergency detention camp for undocumented migrant children.

“This tent city should never have stood in the first place but it is welcome news that it will be gone,” he posted to Twitter, adding that he had spoken to Tornillo’s management.

Johnson said operations at Tornillo “will be ongoing to appropriately and adequately continue the path towards closure.” HHS oversees the care of unaccompanied minors, classified by the U.S. government as UACs, who arrive at the border alone.

The agency’s Office of Refugee Resettlement works to find a suitable sponsor — family, family friend, or an adult approved by HHS — for each of the children once they’ve processed by the Department of Homeland Security.

Johnson said the ORR and shelter staff “worked around the clock” to care for each of the migrant children held at Tornillo.

“The program is designed to expand and contract to meet these needs, and facilities, like Tornillo, have been critical during periods of influx as was done in 2012, 2014, and 2016,” Johnson said.

It’s not immediately clear how many of the children were placed with sponsors versus how many were possibly redirected to another HHS-approved shelter in the agency’s network.

A sign hangs in the town southeast of El Paso which is home to a newly constructed tent city to house immigrant children, in Tornillo, Texas. Picture taken June 19, 2018. Photo by Jon Herskovitz/Reuters

A sign hangs in the town southeast of El Paso which is home to a newly constructed tent city to house immigrant children, in Tornillo, Texas. Picture taken June 19, 2018. Photo by Jon Herskovitz/Reuters

Criticism against the Tornillo facility intensified since its opening last summer.

The federal government erected the facility amid a growing influx of migrant children under U.S. custody. Critics, including lawmakers and advocates, dubbed the facility as a “tent city” and raised concerns over the children’s well-being, citing psychological impacts of housing young migrants for extended periods of time and in large groups.

Originally, Tornillo was only to remain operational for 30 days when it opened in June. But the federal government extended its contract and increased funding as the number of migrant children detained at the facility ballooned to more than 2,000 children months later.

HHS said Tornillo, which was initially billed as a temporary shelter for hundreds of children, was “a necessary and prudent step to ensure that HHS has the capacity to provide appropriate care for the children while a suitable sponsor is identified.”

At the same time, the Trump administration dropped a fingerprinting requirement that advocates said slowed the vetting process for potential sponsors looking to care for an unaccompanied minor awaiting placement.

Johnson, in a December interview with NPR, said the government relaxed the rule because it was “not adding anything to the protection or the safety of the children.”

“The children should be home with their parents. The government makes lousy parents,” she added.

An Associated Press investigation in November revealed that the Trump administration waived rigorous FBI fingerprint checks for its staff of 2,100 workers.

Late last year, HHS officials said Tornillo would shut down in early 2019.

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