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After Returning from Border, Chu and Merkley Introduce Legislation to Shut Down Tornillo Child Prison

December 20, 2018
Press Release
The Shut Down Child Prison Camps Act follows visit inside the site on December 15 and key Trump policy reversal earlier this week.

Washington, DC — Following a Congressional trip to the southern border this weekend where they saw the child prison in Tornillo, Texas, Rep. Judy Chu (CA-27) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (OR) have introduced the Shut Down Child Prison Camps  Act. This bill prohibits the Secretary of Health and Human Services from maintaining or operating any temporary emergency shelter, including the shelters in Tornillo, Texas and in Homestead, Florida. A “temporary emergency shelter” is defined as any unlicensed care provider facility that provides temporary emergency shelter and services for unaccompanied alien children when licensed facilities are near or at capacity. Being unlicensed means the facility at Tornillo has not been certified by state authorities responsible for regulating facilities that house children. Nor does the facility have to comply with the “Flores Settlement,” which requires acting in the best interest of the child. Rep. Chu and Sen. Merkley issued the following statements:

“What I saw and learned in Tornillo was shocking and outrageous. Thousands of children who fled horrors and endured a difficult journey are being housed in a tent city in the desert, watched over by staff who have not had to go through a background check, and forbidden from even walking from tent to tent without adult supervision. This makes children vulnerable to abuse, poses serious developmental challenges, and risks retraumatizing them, both of which will have long-term consequences,” said Chu. “Worst of all, this is a choice that was made by this administration. Unaccompanied children have been and can be released to loved ones or family who will look after their safety and well-being. Instead, Trump is fomenting xenophobia and keeping them in the desert in the hands of people not trained to care for children. Children should not have to suffer a lifetime of damage because of a political choice Donald Trump is making. Simply put, this facility and the one in Homestead, Florida should not exist and must be shut down immediately.”

“It was absolutely chilling to see children locked up in a desolate, isolated tent prison in the desert,” said Merkley. “Children belong in homes, schools, and parks—not behind barbed wire. Our taxpayer dollars are being used to traumatize children by keeping them in a child prison camp instead of in the arms of their families. This is evil. We need to shut down Tornillo and end Trump’s war on children.”

Currently, approximately 2,800 children are incarcerated at Tornillo. Of those, more than 2,000 have been in detention at Tornillo for longer than the 20 days required by the Flores settlement. The vast majority of the long-term child detainees have sponsors who have stepped forward to host them in the U.S.—most of whom are family members of the children—and approximately 1,300 of those sponsors have already cleared a background check. 

The Trump Administration had created a months-long administrative backlog by requiring every adult in a sponsor household to undergo a FBI fingerprint background check before a child could be transferred to their care. This week, following pressure created by the delegation over the weekend, the Trump Administration reversed course on the fingerprinting policy that has created long delays in the release of children.

At their visit to Tornillo on Saturday, Chu and Merkley, along with Sens. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) and Tina Smith (D-MN) and Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX-16), requested to speak with some of the children who have been living at Tornillo, to hear directly from them about their experiences of being incarcerated there. The request was denied by the Trump Administration Department of Health and Human Services.