In the summer of 2019, the Trump administration opened a sprawling tent city—what the administration euphemistically called a temporary emergency shelter—in Carrizo Springs, Texas to house immigrant youth seeking asylum. It was shut down after a month, but the Carrizo Springs facility and similar tent cities in Tornillo, Texas, some of which housed children separated from their family members after arriving at the border, were, as one writer put it, “perhaps the clearest physical expression of the cruelty and chaos of the Trump-era response to southern migration.” As one activist said of Tornillo in 2019, “What I hope the world remembers about the Tornillo tents is that they were a child incarceration facility, a child jail, in the 21st century.”
Now, the Biden administration has brought the Carrizo Springs tent city back, a move that it is defending as unfortunate but necessary. The covid-19 pandemic, has slashed capacity at permanent shelters run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement and overflow spaces are needed. As the Washington Post noted, “The administration also reversed some of Trump’s expulsion practices by accepting unaccompanied children into the country, a change that also is contributing to an increase of minors in government facilities.” It is, according to the Washington Post, the “first migrant child facility opened under the Biden administration.”
Here’s more on the Biden administration’s rationale, via the Washington Post:
Government officials say the camp is needed because facilities for migrant children have had to cut capacity by nearly half because of the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, the number of unaccompanied children crossing the border has been inching up, with January reporting the highest total — more than 5,700 apprehensions — for that month in recent years.
According to Mark Weber, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services, and as the Washington Post put it, Carrizo, which can house up to 700 children, “is expected to close when the pandemic ends.” “Every kid that comes into this program is a symptom of a broken immigration system,” Weber told the Post. Currently, there are about 7,000 children in the custody of HHS. He added, “So today, we’ve got over 7,000 symptoms of a broken immigration system.”
Immigration advocates would likely agree that tent cities like Carrizo are a “symptom of a broken immigration system,” but many are skeptical of the Biden administration’s justifications. “We’re more than capable of surging resources to the border to humanely and fairly process these children without sending them to influx facilities,” said Lisa Koop, the associate director of legal services at the National Immigrant Justice Center, in an interview with USA Today. As Linda Brandmiller, an immigration attorney who works with unaccompanied immigrant youth, put it to the Washington Post, “It’s unnecessary, it’s costly, and it goes absolutely against everything Biden promised he was going to do.” Brandmiller added, “It’s a step backward, is what it is. It’s a huge step backward.”
Temporary facilities like Carrizo are not only more expensive to run than permanent shelters, they are also not subject to the same licensing requirement as permanent shelters run by ORR. And their more remote, rural locations make it more challenging for advocates to assist the children held there. “To legal providers like us, those places are like black holes,” Koop said.
Biden has promised that his administration will reverse his predecessor’s draconian and inhumane immigration policies, but the reopening of the Carrizo tent city is a reminder that pressure will continue to need to be applied to ensure that immigrants are treated humanely and with dignity.