Trump’s zero-tolerance policy puts migrant children in temporary tent cities in TX

Credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor Credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor

In the past couple of months, hundreds of bleary-eyed migrant children have been ushered onto buses in the middle of the night. They leave the shelter without saying goodbye and travel hundreds of miles across barren landscapes to a cluster of tents in West Texas, their new home.
According to The New York Times, the tent city is located in Tornillo, Texas, around 35 miles east of El Paso on the Mexican border. The tents uniformly rise from the ground in parallel lines, white and blocky against a backdrop of dirt. Many tents are air-conditioned, but outside there is little reprieve from the scorching Texas heat. For many children, it’s an unfamiliar and unwelcome change.

Before this development, most migrant children lived in private foster homes or shelters. The shelters, while not ideal, are usually more regulated than the tents. They’re licensed and monitored by state child welfare authorities, who enforce standards on safety, education, staff hiring, and staff training. Children are clustered two or three to a room, and they receive regular schooling and visits with legal representatives.

But the tent city in Tornillo, Texas works a little differently. It’s on federal ground, so state officials have no authority. The only regulations are the guidelines created by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The children sleep in bunks, sometimes twenty to a room. They don’t receive organized schooling; they’re given workbooks with no obligation to actually complete them. Their access to legal advice is also limited.

The Tornillo tent city was meant to be temporary. Opened in mid-June 2018, it was originally slated to stay open for 30 days. But as the amount of migrant children increased, the timeline was continually extended, and as of October 2018, it is still open. In fact, it’s more than open: it’s expanding. According to Texas Monthly, the number of beds increased from 1,200 to 3,800 in September, and the facility is now slated to stay open for the rest of the year.

Unsurprisingly, the tent city is not a productive environment for children already dealing with trauma. According to The New York Times, Leah Chavla, a lawyer with the Women’s Refugee Commission, said, “obviously we have concerns about kids falling through the cracks, not getting sufficient attention if they need attention, not getting the emotional or mental health care that they need.”

So far, these concerns seem to be founded. “The longer that children remain in custody,” The New York Times says, “the more likely they are to become anxious or depressed.” Anxiety and depression can lead to erratic behavior, such as violent outbursts or escape attempts. The suddenness of the move could also compound the trauma. Mental health issues are hard for shelters to deal with at the best of times, and a large facility like Tornillo is much more likely to overlook a struggling child.

The tent cities are obviously not the best solution, so why do they still exist?

There are two main reasons. Firstly, the amount of undocumented children in government custody has increased considerably. The majority of detained children crossed the border alone, but some were separated from their parents under the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy. The government is struggling to find room for around 13,000 detained migrant children, and tent cities seemed like an easy and effective way to provide housing.

Secondly, the zero-tolerance policy made it much more difficult to place children with sponsors. In June, federal authorities announced that potential sponsors and all other adults in the household would have to submit fingerprints. Historically, most sponsors were undocumented immigrants themselves, usually family of the detained children. If they submit their fingerprints, they run the risk of deportation. Already, dozens of people who applied to be sponsors have been arrested, 70 percent of whom did not have prior criminal records. Many potential sponsors have decided the risk just isn’t worth it.

These circumstances — the tent cities, the lack of sponsors, the children’s suffering — are a direct result of rhetoric from the Trump administration and its allies. The growing population of migrant children is due to the zero-tolerance policy; the lack of sponsors is due to the same. The Tornillo tent city, which costs $100 million a month in taxpayer money, is the result of racist and unsympathetic ideas.

The entire situation is a clear example of why rhetoric can be dangerous. It goes beyond hurt feelings and individual actions; it infects our government and institutions. It leads to intolerable living conditions and facilitates child abuse. An incendiary speech can be traced through time to crying children.

This is why we have to strike back at hateful rhetoric. Our society must draw a line. We must proclaim that we won’t tolerate the suffering of children and then follow that thread back to its source. Criticizing rhetoric is not an overreaction; it’s preventative of a much greater evil.
Fortunately, many politicians and influential figures have spoken against the cities and policies. Evelyn Stauffer, a spokeswoman for the HHS, said, “The number of families and unaccompanied alien children apprehended are a symptom of the larger problem, namely a broken immigration system...That is why HHS joins the president in calling on Congress to reform this broken system.”

While the wounds run deep, there is still hope. If we make ourselves as loud as our competition, we may be able to reverse the harmful decisions that have already been made, encourage compassionate policies, prevent such hateful rhetoric, and create a safer world for children of all legal statuses.