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Tornillo Tent Camp

Shining a Light on Tornillo Tent Camp and the Immigration Court in El Paso

Today thanks to our legal advocacy and media attention, asylum-seekers in the Tornillo children’s detention center are starting to get the fair legal hearings they deserve.

Tornillo is a tent camp in the Texas desert where 2,324 migrant children sleep in long rows of bunk beds in Tornillo. The detention center has expanded rapidly in the last six months from its first batch of 360 in June. It could easily become a permanent tent camp for youth migrants despite its myriad problems and remote location for those seeking asylum in this country.

This week, the AP reported that while most migrant youth shelters are typically required to have one clinician per 12 children, Tornillo is required to have just one clinician per 100 children. (It currently provides one per 50, still far below the typically-required ratio.)

More dire still, judges hearing the cases of those at Tornillo from children have been trying to rush them through the system. Over the past two weeks we’ve had 15 cases where the Judge denied attorney prep time. However, today because there were reporters in the room, the Judge approved our request for additional time, known legally as “continuance”, in all 5 of the cases we had today.

Before they fully understand their cases and while children are still in detention, children are being asked to respond to the allegations and the charge of removability the government alleges against them. Even worse, the judges are requiring the minors to formally announce the legal relief they will be seeking in front of the immigration judge. Denying children a meaningful opportunity to be screened by their attorney for relief and adequately prepare their case is a violation of their due process rights.

They need better legal support, and RAICES has stepped in to provide services for these children. We’re currently directly representing 34 children this week with their initial hearings in Tornillo. However, in most cases, attorneys receive significantly more time to prepare their client for their hearing. This is a difficult and complicated process that is difficult for adults to understand, much less children. Let’s not forget, there’s no right to court-appointed counsel in immigration proceedings, even when the defendants are children.

They all need individual legal representation, with appropriate time for each case to be researched, but seldom receive it. We provide batch “know your rights” trainings and for those with court hearings approaching, we provide individual prep so that they enter immigration court with some notion of the removal proceedings process. We’ve trained hundreds of children this week alone.

This must end. The Trump administration’s new approach to immigration policy has created an untenable situation. The children in Tornillo are held in cramped quarters with limited legal services, rushed through their removal proceedings in an effort to clear out full dockets.

The treatment of those at Tornillo is only one example of the harm done by the president’s policies against immigrants. RAICES is committed to representing those at Tornillo as best we can, but locating a children’s detention center in the middle of nowhere is unsustainable and simply wrong.

We call on the Trump administration to end its practices at Tornillo and for the Immigration Court in El Paso to provide adequate time for attorney’s to represent these children. Children should not be kept in desert tent camps without proper legal and health services. All of those in Tornillo are legally required to receive fair hearings as they fight their case to remain in the United States and deserve much more from us.