When Bishop Mark Seitz visited the Fort Bliss tent facility for unaccompanied migrant children Sunday, he was only able to conduct one mass instead of the scheduled two because of record-setting rain that has drenched the borderlands in recent days.
“The rain — it was coming down so fast that they decided to close, to basically lock down the camp (and) nobody was allowed in or out,” Seitz said.
After weeks of blistering heat, the detention camp, which is made of soft-sided tent structures, may face new challenges linked to the uncharacteristic downpours.
Sunday had a record-setting rainfall of 1.47 inches, breaking the previous daily record of 1.21 inches from 1938, according to the National Weather Service. Sunday and Monday storms caused flooding in some roadways throughout El Paso, and more rain is forecast throughout the week, with a flash flood watch remaining in effect through Wednesday evening.
Seitz said the rain had presented some challenges he saw firsthand during his visit Sunday.
“The way the tents are built, the siding doesn’t go all the way to the ground and then there’s a floor that’s built above the ground, so there was water that was along the edges of the tent,” Seitz said, adding that staff had told him there had already been some leaks to the structures. “I think the main problem they were dealing with is that the roads through the camp were somewhat inundated in some places.”
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra visited the facility on Monday but made no mention of the potential impact the rainfall could have on the tent city during a press call after his visit. HHS has not responded to multiple requests for information about how the facility has been affected during the storms.
Seitz said that one of the biggest issues he anticipated because of the rain was bringing kids from one activity to another, since kids have to walk outside from tent to tent in order to access the cafeteria and religious services. But he expressed optimism with the weather resilience of the tents and the level of resources at the facility given dramatic reductions in the number of children currently held there — down from more than 4,000 kids in May to 790 children as of Monday, according to Sec. Becerra.
The Fort Bliss tent facility is one of a number of temporary, HHS-operated “emergency intake sites” that were rapidly set up in late March to remove large numbers of children from Customs and Border Protection holding facilities. But the physical nature of these facilities — and their level of exposure to the elements — is a violation of a decades-old agreement that mandates how unaccompanied minors are held in detention, said Peter Schey, president of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional law and lead counsel in the Flores case.
A landmark Supreme Court decision, Flores v. Reno resulted in the establishment of standards for the detention and care of unaccompanied migrant children in U.S. custody, known as the Flores Settlement. Through this settlement, CHRCL is the only non-governmental organization in the U.S. that is permitted to inspect every detention site for migrant children and monitor whether the government is complying with the settlement.
“Holding children in these large military-type tent facilities is a clear violation of the 1997 Flores Settlement,” Schey said. “Children should not be forced to be drenched in torrential rainstorms in order to access basic services such as food, toilets, or case management.”
Elected officials have previously raised concerns about conditions in the facility. U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, described what she observed during a May visit to the Fort Bliss site as “absolutely unacceptable.” During that visit, she spoke to some children who only had one change of clothes, and others who had been held at the facility for more than 40 days. She also said oversight and accountability at the site was severely lacking.
Becerra’s latest trip to the El Paso site came on the heels of recent reports by BBC News and other outlets of dire conditions, escalating poor mental health among detained children and allegations of sexual abuse by staff. The HHS secretary’s visit follows a recent visit to El Paso by Vice President Kamala Harris and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who received criticism that their trip did not include a stop at the Fort Bliss shelter.
The Biden administration announced Friday that it will be conducting a thorough investigation into conditions at the facility, and during Becerra’s Monday phone call with the press, he said any allegations of abuse are being looked into immediately.
“We have obligations under law to do that, and it’s just the right thing to do. We don’t just do it ourselves, we report it to local law enforcement authorities if it’s appropriate to do so,” Becerra said.
Because Fort Bliss is federal property, local law enforcement in El Paso has no jurisdiction over the facility and cannot investigate alleged criminal activity there, El Paso Police Department spokesperson Sergeant Enrique Carrillo said. HHS has not responded to requests for information about criminal investigations connected to staff at the facility.
On the same day as Becerra’s visit, the Border Network for Human Rights, a local advocacy organization, held a protest near the military base and demanded the site be closed.
On Tuesday, HHS announced that it would be closing four emergency facilities for migrant children elsewhere in the county, but excluded the Fort Bliss site.
Shaw Drake, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas who visited the facility in April, said another potential challenge linked to the rain is less time available for recreation and physical exercise; which has proven critical for the children’s mental health during difficult circumstances.
Drake said it’s not surprising that the children held at Fort Bliss have been suffering from extreme mental health challenges.
“I think those are to be expected when you have kids in such facilities, and then particularly when you don’t provide them with regular updates and other information on the status of their cases,” Drake said. “It can easily lead children in those conditions to feel hopelessness, because they don’t know how long they’re going to have to be there before they can be reunited with family.”
In an ACLU blog post Drake cited a declaration by the Flores counsel that included testimony from a 13-year-old girl who had been detained at Fort Bliss for nearly 60 days.
HHS has not responded to requests for information about the level of mental health support at the facility and the current average length of stay among kids being detained there.
Seitz said he had spoken with children at heightened levels of mental health distress during his visits, including a young girl who had been fighting the urge to self-harm, but said that religion and art have proved to be important tools for the kids in coping with the stress of their situation.
The Bishop has been visiting the shelter nearly every Sunday since Easter Sunday on April 4 to conduct Catholic masses for the children. The bishop has aimed to lift the children’s spirits through religious services, and said he was impressed by the level of reverence among the kids.
“(The children) made very colorful altar setups on tables in each of the tents, and they also put their petitions (things they wanted people to pray for for them) there,” said Seitz, who described how the children had crafted paper sculptures of crosses and created drawings of Jesus and Mary to decorate the altars.
Seitz added that despite criticisms of the facility, he has been impressed with the current level of organization at the facility, and said staff has been doing the best they can during a bad situation.
“When I see people criticizing the camp, I have to ask myself ‘what’s the alternative?’ I don’t know that there are many other options for a really good way to receive these children who are fleeing very often life threatening situations in their home country,” he said.
Cover photo: A woman holds a sign reading “Free them” on the Cassidy Road overpass near Fort Bliss on June 28. A small group, organized by Border Network for Human Rights, gathered to protest Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra’s visit to the unaccompanied minors facility at Fort Bliss. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)