El Paso tent town for migrant children may have a new problem: rain

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When Bishop Mark Seitz visited the Fort Bliss tent for unaccompanied migrant children on Sunday, he was only able to hold one mass instead of the two scheduled due to record rains that flooded border areas in recent times. days.

“The rain – it was falling so fast that they decided to close, basically lock the camp (and) no one was allowed in or out,” Seitz said.

After weeks of scorching heat, the detention camp, made up of soft-sided tent structures, could face new challenges from unusual downpours.

Sunday recorded a record rainfall of 1.47 inches, breaking the previous daily record of 1.21 inches of 1938, according to the National Weather Service. Storms on Sunday and Monday caused flooding on some roads in El Paso, and more rain is expected throughout the week, with flash flood monitoring remaining in effect until Wednesday evening.

Seitz said the rain presented some challenges he saw firsthand during his visit on Sunday.

“The way the tents are built, the liner doesn’t go all the way to the ground and then there’s a ground that’s built above the ground so there was water that was along the edges of the tent, ”Seitz said, adding that staff told him there had already been leaks in the structures. “I think the main problem they faced was that the roads through the camp were somewhat flooded in some places. “

US Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra visited the facility on Monday, but made no mention of the potential impact the precipitation could have on the tent city during a call to the press after his visit. HHS did not respond to multiple requests for information about how the facility was affected during the storms.

Seitz said one of the biggest problems he foresees because of the rain is getting kids from one activity to another, as children have to climb out of tent to tent to access the cafeteria and facilities. religious services. But he expressed optimism about the weather resistance of the tents and the level of resources at the facility given the dramatic reductions in the number of children currently detained – from more than 4,000 children in May to 790 children on Monday, according to Sec. Becerra.

The Fort Bliss tent facility is one of several HHS-run temporary ’emergency shelters’ that were quickly set up in late March to remove large numbers of children from detention facilities. customs and border protection. But the physical nature of these facilities – and their level of exposure to the elements – is a violation of a decades-old agreement that prescribes how unaccompanied minors are detained, said Peter Schey, president of the Center for Children. human rights and constitutional law. and main board in the Flores case.

A historic Supreme Court decision, Flores vs. Reno resulted in the establishment of standards for the detention and care of unaccompanied migrant children in United States custody, known as the Flores Settlement. Thanks to this regulation, CHRCL is the only non-governmental organization in the United States authorized to inspect every migrant child detention site and to monitor whether the government is complying with the regulation.

“Holding children in these large military-style tents is a flagrant violation of the 1997 Flores settlement,” Schey said. “Children should not be forced to be drenched in torrential rains to access basic services such as food, toilets or case management. “

Elected officials have already expressed their concerns about the conditions in the facility. US Representative Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, described what she observed during a May visit to the Fort Bliss site as “absolutely unacceptable”. During this visit, she spoke to some children who had only one change of clothes and others who had been held in the facility for more than 40 days. She also said that oversight and accountability at the site was seriously lacking.

U.S. Representatives Veronica Escobar, left, and Joaquin Castro, center, inspected the Fort Bliss shelter for migrant children in late May. They were accompanied by the Secretary of Health and Social Services Xavier Becerra, to Castro’s right. (Photo by the Department of Health and Social Services)

Becerra’s latest trip to the El Paso site follows recent reports from BBC News and other outlets of dire conditions, escalating mental ill health among detained children and allegations of sexual abuse by staff. The HHS Secretary’s visit follows a recent visit to El Paso by Vice President Kamala Harris and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who received critical that their trip did not include a stop at the Fort Bliss refuge.

The Biden administration said on Friday it would conduct a full investigation into conditions at the facility, and in Becerra’s phone call Monday with the press on Monday, he said any allegations of abuse were immediately investigated.

“We have a legal obligation to do it, and it’s just the right thing to do. We don’t just do it ourselves, we report it to local law enforcement authorities if it is appropriate to do so, ”Becerra said.

Because Fort Bliss is federal property, local law enforcement in El Paso has no jurisdiction over the facility and cannot investigate suspected criminal activity there, the department spokesperson said. El Paso Police Officer, Sergeant Enrique Carrillo. The HHS did not respond to requests for information about criminal investigations related to facility staff.

On the same day that Becerra’s visit, the Border Network for Human Rights, a local rights organization, staged a protest near the military base and demanded that the site be closed.

Protesters from the Border Network for Human Rights stand on Cassidy Road to demand the closure of the Fort Bliss unaccompanied minor center on June 28, the same day Human and Health Services Secretary Xavier Becerra visited the site. (Corrie Boudreaux / El Paso Matters)

On Tuesday, HHS announced it would close four emergency centers for migrant children elsewhere in the county, but excluded the Fort Bliss site.

Shaw Drake, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas who visited the facility in April, said another potential rain-related challenge is less time available for recreation and exercise; which has proven to be essential for the mental health of children in difficult circumstances.

Drake said it was no surprise that the children detained at Fort Bliss suffer from extreme mental health issues.

“I think that is to be expected when you have children in such establishments, and especially when you do not provide them with regular updates and other information on the status of their cases,” said said Drake. “It can easily cause children in these conditions to feel desperate because they don’t know how long they will have to be there before they can be reunited with their families. “

In one ACLU blog post Drake cited a statement from Flores’ attorney that included testimony from a 13-year-old girl who had been held at Fort Bliss for almost 60 days.

The HHS did not respond to requests for information on the level of mental health support at the facility and the current average length of stay for children detained there.

Seitz said he spoke with children with heightened levels of mental distress during his visits, including a young girl who struggled with the urge to self-harm, but said religion and art are coming together. have proven to be important tools for children to cope with. with the stress of their situation.

The bishop has visited the shelter almost every Sunday since Easter Sunday, April 4, to organize Catholic masses for the children. The bishop sought to boost the morale of the children through church services and said he was impressed with the level of reverence among the children.

“(The kids) made very colorful altars on tables in each of the tents, and they also put their petitions there (things they wanted people to pray for),” said Seitz, who described how the children made paper sculptures. crosses and created designs of Jesus and Mary to decorate the altars.

Prayer petitions and drawings by children detained at the Fort Bliss shelter. (Courtesy of Hope Border Institute)

Seitz added that despite the property’s reviews, he was impressed with the property’s current level of organization and said the staff were doing their best in a bad situation.

“When I see people criticizing the camp, I have to ask myself ‘what’s the alternative?’ I don’t know if there are many other options for a very good way to welcome these children who very often flee from life threatening situations in their country of origin, ”he said.

Cover photo: A woman holds a sign reading “Free Them” on the Cassidy Road Viaduct near Fort Bliss on June 28. A small group, organized by Border Network for Human Rights, gathered to protest Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra’s visit to the unaccompanied minor facility in Fort Bliss. (Corrie Boudreaux / El Paso Matters)


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