The number of immigrant children being held in government custody has reached almost 15,000, putting a network of federally contracted shelters across the country near capacity.
The national network of more than 100 shelters are 92 percent full, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. The situation is forcing the government to consider a range of options, possibly including releasing children more quickly to sponsors in the United States or expanding the already crowded shelter network.
Most of migrant children are teenage boys from Central America who travel to the border alone. Many are escaping poverty or gangs, and they plan to ask for asylum and ultimately find work or go to school in the U.S.
Waves of these so-called unaccompanied children have arrived in recent years, and the numbers are on the rise again. In November, according to Customs and Border Protection, an average of 175 unaccompanied children crossed the southern border every day.
The largest migrant youth shelter in the country is in Tornillo in remote west Texas. About 2,800 children live in heated, sand-colored tents set up on a patch of desert a few hundred yards from the Rio Grande.
The camp is staffed for 3,000 children. It can house up to 3,800 children, but that will require hiring more staff.
A source familiar with Tornillo's operation, who asked not to be identified because this person had not been authorized to speak to the media, said the shelter is taking in roughly twice as many kids every week as it is able to release. "This is unsustainable," the source said.
The federal government could add more beds at Tornillo or elsewhere. Another option is to release the minors more quickly to sponsors who agree to take the children — usually a family member who's already living in the U.S. The children stay with this sponsor while their asylum case is pending.
Federal officials screen the sponsors, but that vetting process has slowed to a crawl because of a new policy that says anyone who lives in the sponsor's house can be fingerprinted for a criminal background check.
The Trump administration, when implementing the policy earlier this year, said officials are taking these extra precautions to ensure children aren't put in danger.
If those vetting rules were relaxed, 1,300 children are ready to be released to sponsors, according to the source familiar with the Tornillo operation. The background checks are taking so long that the average stay for a child in Tornillo has now reached 50 days, the source said.
A senior official with Health and Human Services said it would be "premature" to say what action would be taken to address capacity issues at the shelters. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because a plan hadn't been finalized.
When asked whether the government is considering relaxing the screening of sponsor households, the official said that "everything is on the table." The official also said the shelter network could be expanded.
"We continue to look for options that don't jeopardize child safety," the senior official said. The official also blamed a broken immigration system that acts as a "perverse incentive" for undocumented children to cross the border in the first place.
The youth shelters have come under intense scrutiny and criticism from child welfare experts.
"Detention is never in the best interest of a child, especially when it's extended," said Jennifer Podkul, senior director for policy and advocacy at Kids In Need of Defense. "It's bad for the child's mental and physical health."
Podkul said child welfare experts agree it's best to put kids in smaller facilities, not larger ones, where they can be affected by isolation and illness.
Protesters, including congressional Democrats, have been coming from across the country to the fence line at Tornillo to denounce the facility.
Vince Perez, the El Paso county commissioner whose precinct includes Tornillo, wants the facility to close. "We're already battling the perception that [El Paso County] is inherently a violent place. Now you have a massive detention facility where you have thousands of children detained there. It's deplorable," Perez said.
Last month, the Office of Inspector General at Health and Human Services identified two "significant vulnerabilities" at Tornillo. The contractor, BCFS, did not conduct FBI fingerprint background checks on its 2,000 staffers, though it had performed routine criminal background checks. And the facility lacked enough mental health clinicians for the swelling number of children.
The nonprofit says it is addressing both deficiencies.
BCSF officials have defended the camp, insisting that it is not a detention facility and that the employees are not guards. They say every child has access to three hot meals, snacks, education classes, medical care, soccer games, movie nights and, soon, Christmas festivities.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We have news this morning of almost 15,000 children held in shelters by the United States. Federal contractors run the shelters, and they are filling up with young people, young migrants, mostly from Central America. The U.S. can place them with families but has changed the rules to do that less. NPR's John Burnett joins us from El Paso, Texas. Hey there, John.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: So why are these children in government custody?
BURNETT: Well, most of them are teenagers from Central America who traveled to the border alone. They're escaping poverty and gangs, and they want to ask for asylum. But the numbers keep rising. Last month, border agents report they were apprehending on average 175 of these so-called unaccompanied children every day.
BURNETT: And the network of these government-contracted shelters is just running out of space. They're at 92 percent capacity. One source who's familiar with the operation out here in Tornillo, in far west Texas, the biggest shelter of all, told me there are barely any beds left. This is unsustainable.
INSKEEP: Do they have to be in shelters?
BURNETT: Well, they could add even more beds for these kids, which is expensive and controversial, or they can seek a way to release these children from custody even quicker. Right now, you see, the kids are caught in a bottleneck. The feds have to screen an adult sponsor who steps forward to take the child, and that's usually a family member already living in the U.S. And then the child stays with them while their asylum case is pending.
But that vetting process has slowed to a crawl, partly because of a requirement that was added last year. Anybody who lives in the sponsor's household has to be fingerprinted and get a criminal background check. The Trump administration says they're just taking extra precautions to protect the children from, say, a convicted child molester. And so by relaxing that screening process, I was told, Tornillo has 1,300 kids ready to release today.
INSKEEP: Tornillo. That's a major facility that we're talking about here, where these kids are. Has the government decided what it's going to do?
BURNETT: Well, I spoke with a senior official at the Department of Health and Human Services, and they're the ones who oversee the shelters, and she told me it's too early to say what action, if any, they'll take to relieve this shelter overload, that everything's on the table. The official said, we continue to look for options that don't jeopardize the child's safety. And she added, the real problem is a broken immigration system that acts as a perverse incentive for all these young people to cross the border in the first place.
INSKEEP: Have you been able to learn what it's like inside the shelters holding these almost-15,000 kids?
BURNETT: So Tornillo's the largest shelter in the country with 2,800 kids. I took a tour out there in the summer when it was smaller. The boys and girls stay in these big sand-colored tents lined up in rows on a patch of desert just a few-hundred yards from the Rio Grande. The shelter's staffed up, at present, to care for 3,000 children. So they're going to max out any week now. Today, the average stay in Tornillo is 50 days, and that's worrying. Child welfare experts say detention is never in the best interest of a child. It's bad for them mentally and physically.
And this is why Tornillo gets so much criticism. Protesters are out there all the time calling for it to be shut down. Here's El Paso County Commissioner Vince Perez. Tornillo's in his precinct, and he complains it's giving the county a bad name.
VINCE PEREZ: We're already battling this perception that it's inherently a violent place. Now you have a massive detention facility where you have thousands of children that are detained there. It's certainly deplorable, what's happening.
INSKEEP: OK. This shelter has been criticized not just by protesters, but by federal inspectors. What happened?
BURNETT: Well, last month, the inspector general of Health and Human Services identified two problems. Staffers at Tornillo didn't undergo FBI fingerprint background checks, and there weren't enough mental health clinicians for the kids. The nonprofit that runs Tornillo is now addressing both issues and they'll - but they want to say, anybody who's listening, Tornillo is not a detention facility. The kids are not in cages. They provide humane, comfortable living conditions, healthy meals, medical care, classes, soccer fields and soon a big Christmas celebration.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's John Burnett. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.