EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — In 2019, more than 69,000 unaccompanied undocumented migrant children were in the custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families as part of its Unaccompanied Alien Child program (UAC).
By July of 2020, the number of migrant children in HHS custody plunged to about 900.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic and restrictions implemented at the border, the number of migrant children federal custody likely won’t go up anytime soon. That’s because the Trump administration has been expelling thousands of children back to their home countries under an emergency declaration, which cites the coronavirus in refusing them due process, critics say. Between March and early August, more than 2,000 unaccompanied children had been expelled, according to the Associated Press.
Additionally, many of those children — including some younger than 1 — continue to be held in hotels on or near the border before the expulsion, a practice for which the Trump administration has drawn heavy criticism.
Right now, however, at least 10 children are at a new grant-funded 25-acre migrant facility in far east El Paso called the CHS Trail House Program. It is located in the Montana Vista neighborhood and is designed to accommodate 512 children ages 0 to 17 years old.
In an email to KTSM, the HHS’ Administration for Children and Families (ACF) said, “These facilities are not detention centers.”
According to ACF, the facility is designed to provide residential care and services that comply with state residential care licensing requirements, the Flores Settlement Agreement, federal laws and regulations, and all Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) policies and procedures. ORR is responsible for providing housing for migrant children by awarding contracts to organizations that have demonstrated child welfare, social service, or related experience and are appropriately licensed.
The Flores Settlement Agreement established the state licensing authority over detention facilities and is designed to hold the government accountable while undocumented migrant children are in U.S. custody while they await their imigration hearings.
Under the agreement, minors are to be placed in the least restrictive setting possible that is appropriate to the age and needs of the child. Moreover, facilities must have safe sanitary facilities, sinks, food and water, supervision, medical assistance, temperature control, and contact with family members.
Aerial photos KTSM obtained show some of the buildings have been painted in bright colors, and that the facility is located right next to a residential neighborhood.
A 2014 study by UTEP’s National Center for Border Security and Immigration reports most unaccompanied migrant children are Other Than Mexican (OTM) nationals, which poses significant challenges in both the processing time and requirements for long-term detention.
Most importantly, the study asserts “the amount of time and resources needed to provide humanitarian care is extensive” and, ultimately, increases the number of unaccompanied migrant children in custody. The process of ensuring adequate humanitarian care is a long, expensive, bureaucratic process.
ORR offers grants to companies to build facilities for unaccompanied undocumented migrant children who have entered the U.S. either alone or were separated from their families.
Since 2008, the U.S. government has awarded $9 billion in grant funds to the UAC program.
According to Victor Manjarrez, associate director at UTEP’s Center for Law and Human Behavior and former Customs and Border Patrol Chief, oftentimes DHS and HHS cannot keep up with the numbers and needs of migrants. Facilities created for unaccompanied migrant children are then re-appropriated to fit the needs of the moment.
“The facility will turn into something else,” Manjarrez tells KTSM via phone. “It’ll deal with maybe single males — or single adults — it’s usually single males, and by the time we need the unaccompanied minor space it probably won’t be there.”
Last August, the grant for the Trail House was awarded to Caliburn International, a corporation that provides specialized services to the U.S. government and commercial clients around the globe.
“CHS Trail House began receiving UAC mid-September 2020,” the HHS Administration for Children and Families said in the email. “Currently, there are approximately 10 UAC at the facility.”
In a follow-up email to KTSM, the agency would not say whether it could or would house migrant children who are being held in hotels ahead of their expulsion and referred further questions to the initial statement.
KTSM obtained drone shots of the CHS Trail House from a local realtor, who wishes to remain anonymous.
The realtor said the facility has made it difficult to nearby sell property, saying potential buyers have expressed concerns about the facility.
The pictures show the 25-acre facility with a horse-shoe of barracks, about a dozen barracks making up each side.
“It’s so sad,” the realtor tells KTSM 9 News. “At first I thought it was a cult.”