Thousands of migrant children who crossed the border without a parent or guardian are being housed in tents at Fort Bliss. (René Kladzyk/El Paso Matters)

Increased capacity at a detention center for immigrant children in El Paso is drawing fresh criticism from advocacy groups who say President Biden’s policies are no different than the hardline positions taken by his predecessor.

As of May 19, nearly 5000 children who crossed the border without a parent or guardian were housed at the Fort Bliss emergency intake shelter in tents that sleep 900. The shelter is the largest in the nation for migrant children, housing nearly a quarter of the total number of children in the care of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement. 

The “megasite” facility could potentially hold as many as 10,000 immigrant children, including 5,000 “tender age” youths younger than 12. The Biden administration is considering expanding the facility to maximum capacity, CBS news reported Wednesday

“This is exactly what we hoped would not happen,” said Luz Lopez-Ortiz, senior supervising attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “The whole point of having this new administration coming out and saying ‘No more,’ ‘We are not going to cage children,’ … many of us believed that,” she said. “It seems that it’s not the case at this point. It seems like the Biden administration has unfortunately slid back into a page from the Trump playbook.”

Activists with Border Network for Human Rights, Hope Border Institute, and Witness at the Border walked six miles from the Paso del Norte bridge to Fort Bliss on April 30 to protest the detention of minors at the military facility. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

In 2018, the Tornillo migrant youth shelter held as many as 2,800 children. It was the largest shelter for migrant children at that time, and drew protests from lawmakers and advocates who said former President Trump’s policies were inhumane and the children should instead be released to relatives or sponsors. 

Rep. Veronica Escobar

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, will be visiting the Fort Bliss shelter on Friday, and said her first priority will be to speak with the children being held there. 

“I am concerned about the growth of the Fort Bliss site,” she said, adding that her preference would be to have three or four smaller facilities, rather than one large shelter. “I think it’s easier for things to go wrong in the larger megasites.”

Escobar said she plans to inquire about staffing ratios when she visits, and to look into recent allegations of poor conditions within the facility. The New York Times on May 18 detailed deficient hygiene standards at the Fort Bliss shelter, with one attorney describing the tents as smelling “like a high school locker room.”

New administration yields fewer changes than advocates hoped

Although the Department of Homeland Security recently touted an 88% drop in the number of children held by Customs and Border Protection at the border, Lopez-Ortiz said the conditions within the emergency intake shelters run by Health and Human Services are not functionally different from CBP facilities.

“We’re playing one of those shell games with the lives of children, the lives of traumatized (and)  very vulnerable children,” she said. “It’s great that they’re no longer housed (in CBP facilities), but what does it mean when the place that they’re being sent to includes facilities that take up to 10,000 children?” 

El Paso Children’s Hospital confirmed it is providing medical care to children from the Fort Bliss emergency shelter facility, but officials there declined to say if the number of children who need care has impacted overall hospital capacity. Officials also declined to comment on the overall condition of the children being sent to the hospital. 

“El Paso Children’s Hospital is working with community partners, such as Fort Bliss, to ensure that if any child needs medical care we are able to support their request,” hospital spokesperson Audrey Garcia said. 

Activists gathered at the foot of the Paso del Norte Bridge on April 30 to protest the detention of minors at Fort Bliss. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement said that children with complex medical conditions are not placed in emergency intake sites like the Fort Bliss shelter.

“HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement takes the safety and health of unaccompanied children  referred to our care with the utmost seriousness. Children who have health conditions that cannot be treated on site are taken to local hospitals,” the HHS spokesperson said. 

HHS has not responded to requests for information about what specific medical support and services are available on-site, nor about the volume of patients from the Fort Bliss shelter being treated at El Paso Children’s Hospital.

“Transparency is sadly lacking,” Lopez-Ortiz said. “Advocates have been calling out the opaqueness of this entire process for several weeks now.”

Media has not been allowed inside the Fort Bliss emergency shelter as it has scaled up in capacity, and current photos of the interior of the facility are not available to the public. 

“I think HHS needs to be completely forthcoming about the level of medical care available to the kids, and I plan on digging into that issue tomorrow during my visit,” Escobar said. 

The congresswoman expressed tempered optimism about improvements in the way migrant children are being cared for under the new administration. 

“What we are seeing is a more efficient process when it comes to releasing children to their sponsors,” she said. “What we saw during the last administration was a lot of obstacles that were put in place to prevent the speedy reunification of families…  So with the removal of those deliberate obstacles, the process has become more efficient.”

But Escobar said she wants to ensure that progress made with the new administration hasn’t plateaued.

One departure from the Trump administration came earlier this year when attorneys and advocates were allowed to restart “know your rights” presentations. In 2019, the Trump administration’s Department of Justice expressly forbade attorneys and advocacy groups from giving the informational briefings to asylum seekers.

Megan McKenna, senior director of communications for Kids in Need of Defense, said that KIND is providing in-person know-your-rights presentations at the Fort Bliss shelter and several other shelters for migrant children throughout the country. 

“(We’re) trying to orient them to the whole U.S. immigration process. It’s really important because these kids just don’t know what is going on,” she said. “They have no experience of this and most, if not all, do not speak English. Some don’t even speak Spanish.” 

Shelter staffing raises questions about accountability

The staffing needs for the El Paso shelter are many and hiring for the facility has ramped up. 

But the minimum qualifications for potential employees is also concerning, Lopez-Ortiz said. 

A position for youth care worker at the Fort Bliss shelter posted by staffing company Insight Global lists a high school diploma as a “preferred” qualification, and a video advertisement for the Travel Youth Care Worker position advertised in El Paso clarifies that “the ability to speak Spanish is ideal, though not required.” 

Lopez-Ortiz said that the low qualification in El Paso job postings sound “eerily similar” to job postings for Homestead, a shelter for migrant children in Florida that was shut down in 2019 amid allegations of sexual abuse and human rights violations. 

“Children who are placed in the care of persons who don’t have the training, the capacity, the skills to adequately care for them is a recipe for disaster,” Lopez-Ortiz said. 

Escobar said she’s also concerned about oversight for the facilities. 

“I want to make sure that we continue moving in the right direction,” she said. 

Lopez-Ortiz said that so far, the only thing that has actually changed with the new administration is the rhetoric. 

“We’re into the fifth month of the Biden administration, they’ve had plenty of time if they really wanted to come up with a plan that was different,” she said.

“Not just different words … but actually to really help address this issue, and provide these little people, these human beings with decent treatment. They have not done that, clearly.”

Correction: a previous version of this story incorrectly listed BCFS System as one of the vendors at Fort Bliss. Although BCFS System has other shelter facilities in the area, they are not involved in the Fort Bliss emergency influx site.

Cover photo: Thousands of migrant children who crossed the border without a parent or guardian are being housed in tents at Fort Bliss. (René Kladzyk/El Paso Matters)

René Kladzyk is a freelance reporter who also performs music as Ziemba. Follow her on Twitter @ziembavision.