Watch CBS News

Officials said "tent city" was temporary months after getting approval to keep it open through year’s end

Inside tent city in Tornillo, Texas
CBS News goes inside tent city housing 300+ undocumented teens in Tornillo, Texas 05:41

Throughout the summer, federal officials repeatedly indicated there were no long-term plans to continue operation of a temporary "tent city" for unaccompanied migrant children

The facility opened on June 14, and officials said they expected it to close on July 13. Two month-long extensions followed, and now the plan is for it to be open through December. 

But CBS News has learned that the department was making longer-term plans for the shelter before it even opened. In a letter written on June 6, the director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) sought permission from the U.S. General Services Administration to run the facility through the end of the year. The letter was obtained by CBS News through a Freedom of Information Act request.

"I am reaching out to request the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) permit for use of the portion of the Tornillo Land Port of Entry site that was designated by DHS as a temporary influx facility from the date of permit approval through 31 December 2018," wrote the director, Scott Lloyd. 

The General Services Administration confirmed to CBS News that the Dec. 31 permit was approved on June 19.

The "tent city" — a nickname that reflects the rows of bunk-bed lined air conditioned tents where children sleep — is operated by a nonprofit called BCFS, which runs health and human services programs around the world.

CBS News reported in July that a loophole in federal policy allows the Tornillo facility to escape the rigorous, often unannounced child welfare inspections that similar shelters operated by ORR are subjected to. Those inspections apply to state facilities, but the "tent city" is on federal land.   

Two shelters for migrant kids aren't subject to state inspections 05:39

In June, Texas Monthly reported that the U.S. Department Health and Human Services (HHS), which operates ORR, had approached two companies with no-bid contracts, worth up to $1 billion, to manage an expanded version of the facility for up to a year. The two companies reportedly declined. 

BCFS was one of the company's offered the deal, a company representative told CBS News. It turned down the offer, because it's typically involved in providing emergency management services, not long-term child care. 

The representative for BCFS told CBS News that it had always expected to provide short-term management of the facility. It initially accepted a short-term grant to operate the facility, which the organization believed would only be in operation while officials weathered an influx of migrants and sorted out issues related to "zero tolerance" immigration policies that were in effect from April 6 to June 20. 

During a press tour of the facility on June 25, BCFS' site commander was critical of the federal government's decision to open it in the first place. He said it was "a direct result of the policy to separate kids by this administration."

"This was a dumb, stupid decision that should've never happened," the BCFS commander told media on June 25. The commander said at the time that he believed the facility would be closed by July 13. 

Now the government and BCFS are somewhat stuck with each other. The majority of the equipment and facilities at the Tornillo site belong to BCFS, meaning if the government ever finds a child care organization willing to operate a "tent city" where thousands of kids are sheltered, they will need to swap out nearly the entire facility while assuring the safety and health of the children, according to the BCFS representative. 

On Aug. 7, Capt. Gregory Davis, director for HHS' Division of Unaccompanied Alien Children Planning and Logistics emailed GSA plans for an expanded site in Tornillo. The email was also obtained by CBS News as a result of its Freedom of Information Act request.

That same day, HHS spokesman Kenneth Wolfe said in an email to CBS News that "no decisions have been made yet" as to whether the facility would be extended past Aug. 13.  

CBS News also emailed BCFS that day to ask if the organization expected the facility to be closed by Aug. 13.

"Our tasking concludes on Aug. 13 and the (unaccompanied alien children) who have not been released to sponsors from the temporary shelter will be transferred to regular ORR programs before that date," responded Krista Piferrer, Executive Vice President of External Affairs.

By August 10, HHS had informed BCFS it would be needed for another 30 days, and just more than a month later it formally extended that commitment through the end of the year.

On September 11, HHS announced the facility would operate through the end of the year. The facility has already expanded to at least 1,200 beds, but HHS said that it will ultimately grow to include 3,800 beds. 

HHS said in a Sep. 18 announcement in the Federal Register that it expects to spend $367 million at the site between September and the end of the year.

Representatives of HHS have not responded to repeated requests for comment. 

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.