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Lawmakers call for greater protections for migrant teens in U.S. detention camp

Lawmakers Thursday called for stricter background checks, more mental health support and a public hearing to further investigate problems at a massive detention camp for migrant teens raised by a federal watchdog report and an Associated Press investigation earlier this week.

More than 2,300 teens are being held at the remote tent city in Tornillo, Texas, which opened in June as a temporary, emergency shelter but now appears to be becoming more permanent, with ongoing construction at costs that can reach $1,200 per child per day, the AP reported Tuesday.

The Department of Health and Human Service’s Office of Inspector General on Tuesday raised concerns that the private contractor running Tornillo has not put its 2,100 staffers through FBI background checks, and that they’re allowed to have just one mental health clinician for every 100 children.

“These issues must be addressed and remedied without delay,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-New York, in a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. It was co-signed by other Democratic House members. They asked for a briefing before Dec. 11 and a hearing in the new Congress early next year.

“The problems we are seeing in Tornillo are as shameful as they were in June and symptoms of a much larger problem that we’ve spent years ignoring — a broken immigration system,” said Rep. Will Hurd, D-Texas, whose district includes the detention camp. “Similar to building a wall from sea to shining sea, detaining kids in Tornillo is the most expensive and least effective policy approach that fails to address root causes of migration flows or make anyone safer.”

Hurd and others said the current border crisis must be solved by working with Central American leaders.

The IG memo, which put the detention camp under a national spotlight, detailed how the former director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement Scott Lloyd granted the contractor running Tornillo, San Antonio-based BCFS Health and Human Services, a waiver in June to staff up without typically required child abuse and neglect checks.

Those checks can raise a red flag about any job candidate with a record of hurting a child. There were two reasons for the waiver, according to the inspector general: first, the agency was under pressure to open the detention camp quickly, and second, Lloyd’s agency assumed Tornillo staff had already undergone FBI fingerprint checks. They had not.

BCFS has filed more than 30 reports on “significant incidents” from Tornillo.

Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn said the detained teens must be kept safe.

“We don’t want anybody staffing those facilities who are going to be a potential danger to the population housed there,” Cornyn said.

HHS spokesman Mark Weber said Thursday the agency was working quickly to resolve the issues at Tornillo, but did not provide further details.

AP found that federal plans to close Tornillo by Dec. 31 may be nearly impossible to meet. A contract obtained by AP shows the project could continue into 2020 and planned closures have already been extended three times since last summer. More than 1,300 teens have arrived to the tent city in the middle of the Texas desert since the end of October.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, said it was ironic the reason record numbers of migrant children are currently being detained is because stringent background checks on their family members have greatly slowed reunifications.

“Clearly, child safety is of no concern for this administration,” he said. “The Trump administration’s cruelty knows no bounds. It should immediately shut down the facility at Tornillo.”

Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, said the AP report deepened the fears he held when he visited the facility earlier this year.

“This administration’s inhumane policies and chaotic execution of those policies will leave lasting scars on the children who are being caught up in this disaster,” Udall said. “The transparency and accountability of this agency is profoundly absent.”