Sec. Becerra reverses course on expanding Fort Bliss migrant facility as workers call the conditions 'appalling' and 'filthy'

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File

As you’ve probably heard by now, the Border Patrol has moved thousands of migrant children out of short-term detention facilities along the border and into a series of Emergency Intake Sites around the country. Some of these makeshift facilities are in convention centers and one of the largest is inside Fort Bliss, an Army base in Texas. Earlier this month the Associated Press reported that conditions at these camps were poor. Kids were said to have little supervision and no education or recreational opportunities. One child psychiatrist warned that it wouldn’t surprise her if children started dying.

Today, HHS Sec. Becerra announced the government was reversing course on plans to house up to ten thousand children (many under the age of 12) at Fort Bliss:

“We do not intend to house tender age children — children under the age of 12 — at the Fort Bliss facility,” Becerra said. “We only have kids who are 12 to 17 at the Fort Bliss facility.”

Advocates and some lawmakers, including Democratic Congresswoman Veronica Escobar, had expressed concern about placing young children at Fort Bliss, which was holding 4,500 teenage boys and girls as of Friday.

“It is shocking that the government ever contemplated sending young children to a setting that fails to meet rudimentary child welfare standards,” Neha Desai, a National Center for Youth Law attorney who represents migrant children in a federal court case, told CBS News. “It is certainly a relief to know that they are no longer considering warehousing these very young children on a military base where they’d be confined in enormous tents with thousands of other children.”

Sec. Becerra described the conditions at Fort Bliss as “adequate” but Reason has published a story today including photos and quotes from unnamed staffers working there who say the conditions are terrible.

“If you took a poll, probably about 98 percent of the federal workers here would say it’s appalling,” a federal employee detailed to the facility told Reason. “Everybody tries in their own way to quietly disobey and get things done, but it can be difficult.”…

Federal employees detailed to the Fort Bliss shelter, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Reason they are working 12-hour shifts six days a week. Basic forms and equipment, including lice kits, are in short supply, and frustration is mounting.

In addition, Reason got hold of a recording from a recent training session. They aren’t releasing the audio to protect the identity of the trainer but they do quote what this person admitted about the conditions at the camp.

“I’ve been into one dorm, one time, and I was like, yeah, I’m not going back there,” the trainer says. “They’re filthy. They’re dirty. There’s food on the floor. There’s wet spots all over the place. The beds are dirty. I don’t know what’s going on or who’s responsible for ensuring that the dorms need to be clean, but we all need to be responsible for telling the minors to clean up after themselves.”

In the same training session the trainer said some workers had been caught in compromising situations with some of the minors:

“We have already caught staff with minors inappropriately,” the trainer says. “Is that OK with you guys? I hope not. We have also caught minors with minors, which is, you know—we’ve got teenagers in this shelter. What’s happening with teenagers? Hormones, raging out of control.”

In addition, Reason got an audio recording of meeting about public health concerns at the facility. Someone in the meeting asked Dr. Joseph Hutter how many people have caught COVID at the facility. Dr. Hutter’s response involved the politics of bad news that might appear in the papers. “If that graph is going to The Washington Post every day, it’s the only thing we’ll be dealing with and politics will take over, perception will take over, and we’re about reality, not perception,” he said.

There are more than 4,500 minors being kept in this one facility and we now have several reports that make clear the conditions are pretty bad. All of this follows the decision to shut down another facility recently because of poor conditions. What’s remarkable is how little attention this is getting compared to the amount of attention similar conditions got in 2019 during the Trump administration. Where are the news outlets pressing for photos and tours of the facility? Where are the news outlets demanding some reaction from President Biden?