Protesters against family separations at the border gathered at Tornillo Port of Entry near El Paso on Father's Day. (John Sepulvado/KQED)
The boys live in white tents in the North Chihuahuan desert. At least once a day, they are allowed to play soccer in a dry dirt clearing that’s flanked by a large metal storage container, and in spots, portable toilets.
In the air, the hum of industrial-grade air conditioners can be heard 300 yards away. Workers hammer away, building more tents and other structures. Surrounding everything is a 10-foot-high, chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. In corners of the perimeter, Homeland Security officers dressed in body armor hold long guns.
On the southwest side of that perimeter is Mexico. From the soccer field, the boys have a clear view of a church and houses in the town of Guadalupe, just beyond the Rio Grande and border fence. But if the boys look north into the rest of the United States, all they can see past their own tents is a giant mound of dirt that blocks the view of Tornillo, Texas.
This tent encampment is on Department of Homeland Security property, a half-hour drive southeast of El Paso. It is operated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, along with the agency’s contractors. According to an HHS statement, it will house up to 360 undocumented teenage boys who came into the country as “unaccompanied minors.” The agency has told local elected officials that the boys are ages 16 and 17.
In the past, this land has been used by Homeland Security to temporarily hold undocumented families as their cases were processed. The current encampment took shape only after President Trump’s zero-tolerance policy took effect.
And that’s when hundreds of boys started arriving by bus, from spots along the border.
Yet advocates, lawmakers and attorneys said Health and Human Services is not telling a complete story.
What makes an ‘unaccompanied minor’?
One of the core contradictions they see in the official HHS statement is the status of the boys at this encampment and whether they are actually “unaccompanied.” That term would require a significant and specific legal process for the boys.
In most cases, to be called “unaccompanied,” the boys would have had to have crossed the border either on their own (without parents or relatives) or been smuggled in by human traffickers.
But immigration attorneys said some came with their families, only to be labeled “unaccompanied” after their parents were arrested as part of the zero-tolerance policy.
“They're ripping parents from their kids without any sort of process,” said Melissa Lopez, an attorney who represents many of the boys detained at Tornillo.
Lopez said, in some cases, the federal government is stopping entire families who cross. Then, after arresting the parents and other adults, the kids are detained as “unaccompanied minors” because they are now in the country undocumented, without any parental or familial supervision.
And, she says, because U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers arrest the parents -- something that did not happen in the vast majority of cases before zero tolerance -- they can even claim the children were being smuggled in by criminals.
The result: Once these teenagers are labeled “unaccompanied minors,” they are placed in the custody of HHS and become subject to different rules. Children who are held in ICE custody with their parents must be released within 20 days, under the Flores settlement agreement that sets conditions for children in immigration custody. The children in this tent camp, run by HHS, don't benefit from that time limit. And because the tent camp is on federal land, it is not subject to state inspections.
Meanwhile, some “unaccompanied minors” can be released while their immigration case proceeds, if a family member or other sponsor can be found.
But a new Trump administration policy requiring federal agencies to share information is making it harder to find those sponsors, attorneys said. That’s because if these boys tell Health and Human Services workers about family members -- who might be undocumented themselves -- ICE officers can now take that information and arrest those family members before they even get to the encampment.
Lopez said this discourages undocumented family members from claiming the boys, because they’re scared of being apprehended and deported themselves.
“There has to be a better system [to] ensure parents know where their kids are, kids know where their parents are, they're able to communicate with each other, and the parents are able to assert their right,” Lopez said.
The bottom line, according to Lopez: More people are being detained and for longer periods of time.
This legal logjam is compounded by the fact that the teenagers are having a hard time reaching their parents, and legal representation is hard to come by in this rural area.
“El Paso doesn’t have a lot of lawyers, and Tornillo, Texas, has no lawyers,” said Rep. Mary González, a Democrat who represents this district in the state House. “I mean, c’mon, we’re talking about rural Texas.”
Meanwhile, most of the local lawyers who have handled immigration cases have done it in civil court -- experience that’s very different from the criminal prosecutions the Justice Department is seeking in the new zero-tolerance policy.
“The immigration lawyers say, ‘We need criminal lawyers to come and help us,’ ” González said, “because they have never done this before.”
The Department of Homeland Security has refused to answer requests for comment on this and many other questions about the tent encampments. They refer questioners to Health and Human Services, which repeatedly issues the same statement:
“The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), with the support of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), has selected Tornillo Land Port of Entry as a temporary shelter location for unaccompanied alien children cared for by HHS’ Administration for Children and Families. HHS will continue to keep local and congressional officials informed during this process.”
Members of Congress have been briefed on the encampment, including Republican Will Hurd and Democrat Beto O’Rourke, who represents El Paso and is challenging U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz for his seat this fall.
Both Hurd and O’Rourke have confirmed that not all of the boys in this encampment fit the long-standing definition of “unaccompanied minor.”
Opposition to ‘zero tolerance’ and tents
The day after his first briefing on Tornillo, O’Rourke seized on the widespread outcry to these new policies and tent encampments. On Sunday, he led a protest of more than 2,000 people outside the camp.
“I feel guilty that my wife and I should be in church, but we thought that this was a higher calling,” said Douglas Davis, 72, of El Paso.
Lines of cars sprawled out in several directions from the center of the protest. Many of the people carried signs depicting their displeasure with Trump personally. Others compared the tent encampments to internment and concentration camps, urging the policy of family separation to end now.
Many in the crowd noted the irony that these boys were being held at a port named after a famous undocumented Texan, Marcelino Serna, a Mexican immigrant. Serna joined the U.S. Army in 1917 to avoid deportation.
He eventually went on to become the most decorated Texan soldier in World War I.
Other protesters saw themselves in these boys, and saw echoes of their own stories playing out in the tents. People took turns chanting and sharing their own migration stories -- and those of their abuelas and abuelos, of their mothers and fathers.
Jose Ramos, 65, raised a sign that said, “No child should be apart from his parents.”
“Little by little if we start losing our human rights, where are we going to wind up?” Ramos asked. “We’re going back in time. I do believe in human rights, and no human should go through this. Doesn’t matter who it is.”
Virginia Widick drove overnight, through storms, from Dallas. She’s planning to spend her upcoming two-week vacation protesting the tent encampment.
“It’s not just some political game, which I don’t think the Trump administration understands,” she said. “They’re not pieces on a chessboard. They’re people. I think Trump just thinks he can have fun. You know, ‘Let’s move this little piece on the chessboard and see how pissed off people get. Isn’t this fun?' ”
“It’s not fun,” she added. “It’s people’s lives.”
Tent camp has capacity to hold 4,000 teenagers
While the protest was a cathartic moment for frustrated opponents of the zero-tolerance policy, it was also where key plans for the camp were publicly revealed for the first time. Asked by KQED and Marfa Public Radio about the future of the encampment, O’Rourke confirmed that officials could add as many as 3,500 beds.
“They are looking at expanding capacity,” O’Rourke said. “This is unprecedented. This tent structure went up almost overnight, and they are rapidly trying to expand it.”
Hurd and González also confirmed that Health and Human Services is working to expand the encampment to hold up to 4,000 “unaccompanied minors.” And though agency officials would not comment, workers and materials on the property signal a coming large-scale expansion.
González wonders if these expansion plans are really just political stunts to put pressure on Democrats to reconsider their opposition to the president’s proposed border wall.
“'Oh, you don’t like the tents?'” González asked, imitating Trump sarcastically. “'OK, well then, we need more money for the wall.'”
At least one Democrat in Congress, Rep. Jackie Speier of San Francisco, recently said she is willing to negotiate about the wall if it means fewer tents.
“Everything is a compromise,” Speier told KQED’s Forum. “I’m trying to limit the obstacles. And as soon as we get some sanity in Congress again, we can withdraw that funding and tear down that wall.”
Even if such a compromise were to happen, though, it is not expected soon. And unless a federal judge orders the release of these teenagers -- something advocates think is unlikely -- their presence forms a kind of virtual wall, a reminder to people on both sides of the border of the administration's current immigration policy.
This story was reported by KQED's John Sepulvado, freelance reporter Emily Cureton and Marfa Public Radio's Carlos Morales, Diana Nguyen and Sally Beauvais. KERA and KQED edited this story.
This story was updated on June 21 to clarify the meaning of the Flores settlement agreement.