White House

Trump planned to erect tent cities to house immigrants since the start of his presidency

Since the earliest days of the Trump presidency, the administration has been preparing to erect tent cities to house immigrants who had come to the country illegally.

The Department of Homeland Security asked Congress for $95 million to erect tent cities in two locations in Texas to "detain all immigration violators," according to a budget document shared with McClatchy and provided to Congress in March 2017.

The so-called "soft-sided structure facilities in Tornillo and Donna, Texas" were to house immigrants — possibly unaccompanied children or families — after the United States saw a surge in the number of immigrants crossing its southern border during the Obama administration.

But in the following weeks, the number of immigrants coming to the U.S. declined and the administration informed Congress in April 2017 that it no longer needed the money for tent cities.

The administration's new plan to house thousands of immigrant children separated from their parents in tent cities in Texas — at Fort Bliss Army base near El Paso, Dyess Air Force base in Abilene and Goodfellow Air Force base in San Angelo — has caused a national uproar with critics quickly dubbing them "concentration camps."

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Clara Long, U.S. researcher at Human Rights Watch, said children should not be detained at all and that the focus of the administration should be on keeping families together.

“It’s not about the materials on the wall. It’s holding children in detention itself," she said. "Tents are bad because they allow the government to expand detention rapidly."

HHS spokesman Kenneth Wolfe said temporary structures contain a full heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, as well as a floor, walls and doors. “Using semi-permanent structures allows for increased speed and flexibility to get the shelter operational to care for children and expand as necessary,” he said.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, talking to reporters in Miami Tuesday, declined to say how many tent cities will be erected to hold children. "We keep working to expand capacity to ensure we can properly care for the children," he said.

The tent cities are being built for an increasing number of immigrants as Attorney General Jeff Sessions and DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen enforce a new zero tolerance policy that calls for prosecuting all adults who crosses the border illegally. But Azar said the "vast majority" of immigrant children in HHS's custody are unaccompanied minors sent to the United States alone and not those separated from their parents.

Tens of thousands of unaccompanied children and families have been apprehended since 2014, when a surge of Salvadoran, Honduran and Guatemalan mothers and children raced into the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, fleeing violence and poverty.

"Roughly half a million illegal immigrant family units and minors from Central America have been released into the United States since 2014 at unbelievably great taxpayer expense," President Donald Trump said at a National Federation of Independent Businesses event. "Nobody knows how much we're paying for this monstrosity that's been created over the years."

President Trump continued his assertion that Democrats are to blame for children being separated at the U.S.-Mexico border. He said that changes to immigration laws could be made quickly if they were willing to negotiate with him.

The Department of Homeland Security and the White House did not respond to questions.

HHS' Office of Refugee Resettlement housed children who came to the United States alone, in tent cities — at Homestead Air Force Base in Florida, Lackland Air Force Base in Texas and Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico in 2014 and 2016 — during President Barack Obama's presidency, though it did not garner as much attention.

In March 2017, even as the Trump administration made the new budget request, it closed down a tent city next to Homestead Air Force Base in south Florida that had housed immigrant children for nine months.

DHS requested the $95 million after fiscal year 2017 started with apprehensions roughly 40 percent above average for the previous five fiscal years, according to the budget document, which was provided earlier this month to American Oversight, a group founded to monitor the Trump administration, in response to a public records request and a subsequent lawsuit seeking details of any efforts to secure funding for a wall along the southern border.

"These temporary facilities help CBP to mitigate the migration surge volume and create an increased capacity for the overflow at the stations and ports of entry," according to the budget document. It's unclear what date the document was written but it provided to lawmakers in March 2017.

In February 2017, the two facilities in Texas were in a "warm-standby" status, allowing contract vendors to be kept in place in the event of a surge, according to an April 25, 2017 document obtained through a public records request by altgov2.org, which fights against government secrecy. But they were "decommissioned" after a decrease in illegal migration and apprehensions, according to a 90-day progress report on Trump's immigration enforcement executive actions.

The ORR is responsible for the care of more than 11,200 migrant children being held without a parent or guardian and must routinely evaluate the needs and capacity of approximately 100 shelters , which are now 95 percent full.

Wolfe said the ORR provides the same high level of care and services in semi-permanent structures as in permanent structures, including medical care, recreation activities, dining and shower/bathroom purposes. "We take custody of the children," Azar said. "They get education. They get meals. They get medical care. They get daily athletics."

The U.S. Border Patrol released video of a brief tour they gave reporters inside a detention facility in McAllen, Texas, where it holds families arrested at the southern U.S. border. The video shows adult and children housed in cages.

Due to seasonal fluctuations of unaccompanied minors, the administration said it needs to have a mix of temporary and permanent facilities.

"We have some of the highest detention standards in the country," DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told reporters at the White House Monday. "Claiming these children and their parents are treated inhumanely is not true and completely disrespects the hardworking men and women at the Office of Refugee Resettlement."

Daniel Chang of the Miami Herald contributed.

Anita Kumar: 202-383-6017, @anitakumar01

Franco Ordoñez: 202-383-6155, @francoordonez