Operators of Texas "Tent City" for unaccompanied migrant children plan to close it

By Graham Kates

/ CBS News

Inside tent city in Tornillo, Texas

An official with the organization that operates a "tent city" for housing thousands of minors told CBS News it does not plan to sign a long-term extension of its contract with the government. The nonprofit organization, BCFS, has been paid by the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to operate the Tornillo facility in southwest Texas since June 14.

It opened that day with enough beds for 400 youths in rows of bunk bed-lined tents. It has since expanded to accommodate more than 2,500 teens, with capacity for another 1,300.

The BCFS official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter, said the organization does not plan tp accept a long-term contract to operate the facility after the current contract expires on December 31. Instead, BCFS will take daily extensions with the expectation that the government will transfer the children elsewhere, potentially by January 15.

"Tornillo is not accepting new children. We will stay until HHS places the last child with their sponsor or another (Office of Refugee Resettlement) facility," the official said. "We've said all along that this is not a permanent solution and children should be with their families."

BCFS officials have long been critical of the government's decision to open the facility. BCFS' site commander said during a June 25 press tour that it was opened as "a direct result of the policy to separate kids by this administration" referring to the now-discontinued "zero tolerance" policy for migrants caught crossing the border.

"This was a dumb, stupid decision that should've never happened," he said.

A BCFS official told CBS News in September that the organization previously turned down a no-bid contract offer to manage the facility long-term, because the organization's bread and butter is providing emergency management services, not indefinite child care.

On Sunday, Representative Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas) said in a speech to a crowd protesting outside the facility that BCFS President Kevin Dinnin told him there are already 300 teens at the site who can be reunified with families once transportation can be arranged.

"He (asked) if i could help broadcast the message: 'Give up your seat on flights leaving El Paso so we can get those kids to their family,'" O'Rourke told the crowd. "If not, he says it will happen in January. He says along the current trajectory, and if he's able to hold strong and not accept anymore children, by mid-January, Tornillo will shut down."

Returned to Tornillo & spoke with the CEO of the tent camp. He says he will no longer accept additional kids. That means by mid-January, Tornillo could shut down. We can't let up. We can't stop showing up. We will be back here again and again until the camp closes down for good. pic.twitter.com/EATBe12ivg

— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) December 23, 2018

Asked about BCFS' contract, a spokesperson for HHS did not confirm or deny the organization's contention that it won't be taking new extensions.

"There are no updates on the contract at this time," said Evelyn Stauffer, the spokesperson.

It is not clear how much BCFS has been paid to operate the site, but HHS said in a Sep. 18 announcement in the Federal Register that it expected to spend $367 million for the facility between September and the end of the year.

The majority of the equipment and structures at the Tornillo site belong to BCFS, an official told CBS News during a September interview, meaning if the government ever finds a child care organization willing to operate the site, it will need to bring its own equipment.

When the Tornillo facility first opened in June, officials said they expected it to close on July 13, but month after month it extended and remained open. Though government officials repeatedly said the facility's closure remained imminent, CBS News revealed in September that the director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) sought permission to run the facility through the end of the year as early as June 6.

First published on December 24, 2018

© 2018 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Graham Kates

Graham Kates is an investigative reporter covering criminal justice, privacy issues and information security for CBSNews.com.

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