Migrant children, most from Central America, have been housed in a tent city in Tornillo, Tex., near the Mexican border. The facility, which opened in June, is preparing to close next month. Mike Blake/Reuters
A tent city in the Texas desert that came to symbolize the mass detention of migrant children by the Trump administration will most likely be closed within weeks.
An official with BCFS, the shelter operator that has been running the encampment in Tornillo, Tex., said late Sunday that the expectation was that by Jan. 15, all 2,500 children would be on their way to a parent or sponsor in the United States.
“By mid-January, the children should be all released,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak with the news media and spoke on condition of anonymity. “We’re not extending our contract with the government.”
The official said that BCFS’s contract would expire on Dec. 31, and that it would be extended daily until all the children have been released from the Tornillo shelter. Some children at Tornillo have been there since it opened in June, and minors at other shelters have been stuck for about a year.
On Sunday, workers started dismantling mobile showers and restroom trailers, the official said.
In shutting the shelter, BCFS would also disassemble tents, bring down power lines and cart away the furnishings — including bunk beds, washers and dryers, and medical equipment — that had turned the site into a mini-city for adolescents. Most had traveled to the United States from Central America to flee violence and poverty.
Representative Beto O’Rourke, Democrat of Texas, had said earlier Sunday that the chief executive of BCFS had told him that minors were no longer being admitted at the sprawling Tornillo facility, which sits in his district on a barren patch of land about 35 miles from El Paso.
Even if BCFS folds up the tent city at Tornillo, the government could try to find another operator to erect a shelter there.
Evelyn Stauffer, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, did not confirm that the tent city would close. In response to questions, she said in a statement that the agency was working for the release of the minors “as soon as possible.”
Representative Beto O’Rourke, Democrat of Texas, and Democratic Senators Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Tina Smith of Minnesota and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii visited Tornillo this month.
“Our focus is always on the safety and best interest of each child,” the statement said. “These are vulnerable children in difficult circumstances, and H.H.S. treats its responsibility for each child with the utmost care.”
During a visit to Tornillo on Sunday with dozens of demonstrators, Mr. O’Rourke said the BCFS executive, Kevin Dinnin, had explained that only the lack of space on flights during the holiday travel season was preventing hundreds of minors from more quickly joining their families.
Mr. O’Rourke said that since opening in June, the tent city had cost taxpayers $144 million, a figure the shelter official did not dispute. The price of sheltering a minor at Tornillo is about $400 a day compared with about $200 in brick-and-mortar locations.
In revealing that the children would be released, Mr. O’Rourke said they have been “in a tent in the middle of the desert, in a kind of purgatory or limbo, not knowing when or if you will see your family again.”
The impending closure of Tornillo follows a recent policy reversal by the Trump administration that is designed to speed up the release of about 15,000 minors who have been parked for months in some 100 shelters across the country.
On Tuesday, the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the care of migrant children through its Office of Refugee Resettlement, announced that it would no longer require fingerprints for all members of a household where a migrant child is to live. Instead, fingerprints will be required only of the adult who is sponsoring the minor.
The agency said modifying the policy was in the best interest of the minors, and a senior agency official said the government made “lousy parents.”
Sponsors of migrant children who cross the border and are taken into custody of the United States authorities must still pass criminal and extensive background checks. But others in the same home will not be subjected to that extra vetting, which was introduced by the administration in June.
As a result, it will take significantly less time to place children with their families, and their stays in the shelters will be much shorter.
A private security guard patrolling outside the Tornillo facility. The United States government could try to find another operator to erect a shelter there.
After a lull during President Trump’s first year in office, the number of migrant youths, typically adolescents, making the journey alone to the United States border soared in 2018.
The enhanced screening delayed their release, stretching the shelters that housed minors to nearly full capacity. Most of the children at Tornillo have been waiting for the results of F.B.I. checks for everyone in the households of their potential sponsors.
“Kids kept coming but none were being released,” said the BCFS official, adding that the screening had created a “terrible capacity logjam.”
At its peak, nearly 3,000 minors were warehoused at Tornillo, which originally was intended to provide temporary housing. The facility opened in June with about 360 teenagers and its population swelled.
Its creation and expansion highlighted the degree to which the Trump administration has taken a disaster-oriented, militaristic approach to the care and housing of migrant youths. Previous camps had been erected for about 30 days for those made homeless by natural disasters, such as hurricanes.
Most of the children at Tornillo were transferred there from other facilities. BCFS, which is based in San Antonio, runs six other shelters in Texas and California with about 1,000 total beds. It initially signed a contract with the federal government to run Tornillo for 30 days; the Department of Health and Human Services began extending that contract on a monthly basis and then, in October, for another three months.
The fingerprinting of every household member had inhibited undocumented immigrants from coming forward out of concern they could be deported. Indeed, the information has been shared with the Department of Homeland Security, leading to the arrest of some 170 immigrants.
The lengthy warehousing of minors had come under attack from immigrants’ advocates, Democratic lawmakers and medical professionals, who had raised concerns about its negative impact on the mental health of the children.
“All of us who care about the safety and well-being of children are relieved to hear that the appalling internment camp in Tornillo is reportedly being emptied out,” said Dr. Amy J. Cohen, a child psychiatrist and trauma expert who has interviewed migrant children in shelters. “One hopes that this means that it will be shuttered for good.”
On Sunday, as dozens of protesters sang Christmas carols outside the Tornillo encampment, one bus with adolescents departed. The BCFS official said that on Monday, another 118 children were booked on flights departing Christmas Eve.