We drove for over an hour outside of El Paso, Texas, past civilization, past dead cotton fields and into the isolated desert, surrounded by distant mountains. Then, emerging out of nowhere, was an entire city of gigantic, white tents. That “city” did not have running water or wired electricity. It existed on generators and imported potable water. Indeed, it was an isolated city of 2,700 children and their guards in the windy and chilly camp city of Tornillo. I saw it last weekend. It can only be described as a child prison camp, and it is President Trump’s dirty little secret.
I was in Texas as part of a bicameral Congressional delegation to the southern border led by Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon. We visited numerous immigration facilities and spoke to government officials, advocates and lawyers. This was not my first visit to the border, nor was it my first to an immigrant detention facility. But what I saw at Tornillo truly shocked me. Instead of the active, playful children I expected to find, I saw them treated like inmates.
One image I can never forget. Because of the conditions there, the children cannot walk from tent to tent by themselves. Instead, they’re forced to march in single-file lines, with a guard positioned in front of and behind them. These guards even accompany them to the bathroom.
These conditions risk harming the children, perhaps for years or permanently. As a psychologist, I’m particularly worried that we are re-traumatizing them. We can only imagine the traumas they have experienced and the conditions that they face here. And, we wanted to ask them about it. But when one of us tried to talk to them, the staff at the prison camp stopped us. If the barren desert setting of this camp wasn’t enough, the message of this policy was clear: these children are to be isolated.
These young people at Tornillo are unaccompanied minors. They have committed no crime except that of crossing the border. They have a legal right to ask for asylum in the U.S. and with sponsors in the U.S., can undergo a court procedure that will address their claims. But instead, they’re isolated and treated like prisoners — their movements controlled, their independence gone.
This camp differs from a prison in another crucial way: unlike inmates, these children have no idea when their detention will end. “When am I going home?” is one of the most common questions these children ask. If indefinite detention of children in the desert sounds wrong to you, that’s because it is. According to the Flores decision, a court-ordered settlement challenging the detention of children, the government must act in the best interest of the child. They must be detained for no more than 20 days. To get around that legal requirement, President Trump has deemed this prison camp an “emergency influx facility.” That means the camp is exempt from the requirements of the Flores settlement. It also means they can skip other protections, like FBI background checks for staff working at the facility, putting the children at risk of abuse.
To be clear, this policy is a choice by this administration. Children making asylum claims can be safely released to family where they can await their court date with loved ones. In fact, when I was at Tornillo, there were an astounding 1,300 children who could be released right that moment to sponsors who had cleared a background check, were it not for Trump’s now-withdrawn fingerprint policy. Even the staff in charge at Tornillo, who are doing their best, told us that they think these children should be released to their sponsors. But Trump is fighting to keep immigrants out of communities all together, hence the desert prison camp.
It’s time for Congress to step in. Trump is able to circumvent legal protections for children by declaring this facility a “temporary emergency shelter.” So, this week, Sen. Merkley and I have introduced legislation in the House and Senate to prohibit the use of these temporary shelters, which means an immediate shutdown of the child prison camp in Tornillo, and its sister camp in Homestead, Florida.
These facilities are dangerous. They harm the well-being of children for the long term. They foment xenophobia. And they violate the spirit of our laws. We must shut these child prison camps down now.