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Inside Tornillo: Teen seeking asylum compares Texas detention center to "prison"

Inside Tornillo tent city
Teen seeking asylum compares Texas detention center to "prison" 04:40

Tornillo, Texas — The so-called "humanitarian crisis" at the border cited by the Trump administration includes the mass detention of migrant children. The U.S. currently houses more than 11,000 children who came to the U.S. alone in detention centers.

A tent city in Tornillo, Texas was built this summer as an emergency response to the surge in unaccompanied minors. Located an hour south of El Paso, the Tornillo detention was at one point the largest detention center in a network of more than 100 government run shelters for migrant children. At its peak, more than 2,800 children were housed there — which for comparison, was larger than all but one federal prisons.

Its size created a massive need for staff and personnel and CBS News saw workers being bused in day and night. But there are questions about whether these workers were qualified or properly vetted to address the minor's mental well-being.

One former Tornillo worker, who asked that CBS News not identify her, said one day she was a guard, the next, a teacher. While she only worked there a short period of time, she said she faced lax screening when she applied, as well as only four hours of training.

The Tornillo detention center. CBS News

"It was anybody. You were medical, you were teaching, you were transportation, you were logistics," she said.

In November, the Office of Inspector General found the Tornillo facility failed to conduct FBI fingerprint background checks. The report also found the facility's clinician staff levels were "dangerously low."

The Department of Health and Human Services generally requires a ratio of one staffer to 12 children for mental health care. But Tornillo was operating at nearly five times that, or one for every 55 children.

Dr. Alma Perez, a case manager at Tornillo, said many employees were hired immediately after the camp started and many were part of what's called "direct care."

"I don't know whether they had any training or not, but those are the people that are in charge of the children 24 hours," she said.

Dr. Perez told CBS News she doesn't think those workers were qualified.

"By the time I left, I saw there were some mental health issues already," she said. "These children are being scarred for the rest of their lives. They've already been traumatized enough."

One 17-year-old, who didn't want to be named, spent two months at Tornillo after entering the U.S. legally from Honduras. He was seeking asylum, fleeing violence and poverty.

He called the center a "prison," and said he would cry every night, praying to God to help him. He said he believes he was better off in Honduras because at Tornillo, he felt alone all the time.

He also described nightmares he would have, saying he has a dream where he's at the center, tries to reach the door and can't open it.

A report last year by the American Academy of Pediatrics found the impact of detention on a child's brain chemistry resembles child abuse and can lead to higher rates of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts.

The academy's former president, Dr. Colleen Kraft, has made multiple trips to the border to visit children.

"Your whole system is on red alert, and with time that causes early heart disease, early lung disease, cancer, obesity," Dr. Kraft said.

The site is expected to close this month, but about 850 children remain there. The rest have been released to sponsor families or have been sent to different locations. HHS has increased the size of it's other temporary facility in Homestead, Florida, which already houses 1,250 migrant children. They recently requested an additional 1,000 beds.

Camilo Pèrez Bustillo is with the Hope Border Institute and was part of an inspection team inside Tornillo in November.   

The Tornillo detention center CBS News

"There are important lessons to be drawn from its experience that need to be projected into the future. We need to ask ourselves, 'Do we want other Tornillos? Are we willing to make Tornillo the model?'" he said.

A new direction is what one asylum seeker is after. He's living with family while he waits for his day in court, and starts school on Tuesday. He said when he thinks about the other teenagers still there, he feels bad for them.

"I pray for them every night and hope they can get out as soon as possible," he said.

The U.S. government has allocated $1.3 billion this year on housing unaccompanied minors trying to enter the country.

HHS declined a request for a sit-down interview. In a statement, a spokesperson said in part, "The safety and care of unaccompanied alien children (UAC) is our top priority. As such, HHS has worked aggressively to meet its responsibility, by law, to provide shelter for UAC referred to its care by the Department of Homeland Security. By activating temporary shelters – and having potential shelters on reserve status – ORR has the capacity to respond to ever-changing levels of referrals and in this case an emergency situation."

It goes on to say, "Our goal is to close Tornillo as quickly but as safely as possible – for both the UAC and all the personnel who have worked faithfully for months providing excellent care for these vulnerable children."

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