Reps. Veronica Escobar, left, and Joaquin Castro, center, inspected the Fort Bliss shelter for migrant children in late May. They were accompanied by Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, to Castro's right. (Department of Health and Human Services photo)

The amount of oversight and accountability at an immigration detention facility housing thousands of children is “absolutely unacceptable,” U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, said after two visits to the site.  

The “megasite” emergency influx shelter for migrant children at Fort Bliss is currently the largest of its kind in the country. It held about 4,300 children who crossed the border without a parent or guardian as of May 26. Escobar toured the site twice in recent days, once with U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra.

Rep. Veronica Escobar

“Some of what I learned in my two visits is absolutely unacceptable to me,” Escobar said.

Her criticism comes as the Biden administration is considering expanding capacity at the Fort Bliss facility to house as many as 10,000 children.  

Reporting by national outlets has raised alarms about “filthy” conditions at the location, where a lengthy maze of cots sleeps 900 children per tent. 

When asked  to describe the conditions inside the facility, Escobar said: “I will tell you that I walked away absolutely certain that megasites are not good for the kids.”

Escobar said she spoke with a group of boys who only had one change of clothes because their clothing had not been returned from the laundry. She also expressed concerns that children are not updated often enough on the status of their cases. 

“When you don’t know what’s going on with your case, of course you’re going to be depressed — especially if you’re a teenager. So I’m really deeply concerned about the kids’ mental health,” she said. “And I’m very concerned about the level of communication that they’re getting about their cases.”

Escobar said she spoke with many of the children housed at the site, including at least a dozen girls who had been at the facility for more than 40 days. 

“There are far too many children who’ve been there for an extended period, and that’s unacceptable,” she said.  

Castro, who accompanied Escobar on her second recent visit to the facility on May 23, said in a statement to El Paso Matters that he shared Escobar’s concerns. 

“These centers are better than the Border Patrol jails, but they’re still not where children belong for an extended period of time,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement, which oversees the Fort Bliss shelter, has not provided specific information about the level of medical care or number of mental health professionals available at the site. 

A statement from the HHS office of communications said, “The ORR (emergency influx shelter) at Fort Bliss is providing required standards of care for children, such as clean and comfortable sleeping quarters, meals, toiletries, laundry, recreational activities, and access to medical services.”

Escobar said she has also had trouble getting answers to some questions from HHS, and has been trying to get a written list of the vendors at the facility for a month. 

“I don’t believe there is enough oversight happening right now over all the vendors,” she said. “And that is one of my main areas of concern.”

Responding to a question about the delay in receiving information about the vendors, the HHS spokesperson said, “HHS looks forward to continuing our vital work with (Rep. Escobar), and we will respond to her request directly and in a timely manner.”

Escobar said that media, who have not been allowed to visit the facility, should be given access. 

She did emphasize some improvements at the facility since her last visit several weeks ago. Although the required minimum number for child-care workers is one for every 15 children, Escobar was told by HHS that the ratio is nearly double that at Fort Bliss. She was also told that HHS has been using virtual caseworkers to supplement the onsite casework team. 

Mark Greenberg of the Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan immigration think tank in Washington, said that the nature of these new emergency influx sites make the need for oversight, monitoring and transparency even greater. He oversaw the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the Obama administration.

“The emergency intake sites are new and different from the kind of influx facilities that have been used in the past,” he said. “These have fewer standards and safeguards and protections and assurances of services than in the facilities that have been used up until now.” 

In a recent analysis, Greenberg said some requirements on staffing, medical care and other essential services are waived at emergency shelters like Fort Bliss. 

“Standard shelters are required to provide a comprehensive medical exam within 48 business hours of arrival, ongoing access to medical and mental health services, six hours of education five days a week, daily outdoor activity and recreation time, legal services, case management and counseling, and privacy policies,” he wrote.  

Criminal records checks for direct staff are lower than they would be at licensed shelters, Greenberg added. 

Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who decried conditions at the Tornillo detention facility for migrant children during the Trump administration, said there are clear differences between the two administrations on border policy. 

“Unlike Tornillo, which held children who had been separated from their parents at the border by President Trump’s DHS, the Fort Bliss facility is an emergency overflow that was stood up after much of the humanitarian border infrastructure had been dismantled during the Trump administration,” he said. 

Some conservative lawmakers have criticized the subdued reaction among Democrats to current border policies, given their level of outrage during the Trump-era. But O’Rourke said that President Biden is doing his best with a tough situation. 

“I would like to see (Biden’s) administration do more to reunite these children with their parents,” he said.  “There’s no good reason for some of them to be languishing at Fort Bliss for weeks on end.” 

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: Reps. Veronica Escobar, left, and Joaquin Castro, center, inspected the Fort Bliss shelter for migrant children this week. They were accompanied by Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, to Castro’s right. (Department of Health and Human Services photo)

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