Tornillo currently holds close to 2,400 immigrant teenagers in West Texas. They are all 14 to 17 years old, and the facility holds both boys and girls. Most of them are from the infamous Northern Triangle of Central America. Almost all of them entered the United States without a parent, encountered Customs and Border Patrol, and were classified under immigration law as Unaccompanied Children. A few entered with a parent and were separated shortly after crossing the border, which made them Unaccompanied Children. In accordance with immigration law, the kids were turned over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is part of the federal Department of Housing and Human Services. ORR keeps the kids in custody until they can be released to a sponsor in the United States while their immigration case works its way through the system. This process has been in place for decades. Until recently, it usually meant the youth spent a couple of weeks in a group home, then rejoined his family. There were problems with this process, but now those problems seem like the good old days.
This summer, the president made it much, much harder for sponsors—who are usually family members—to come forward and pick up their kids, largely because the government is threatening to deport anyone they can who comes forward as a sponsor. The family members are now too scared to come get their kids, so the kids stay in custody. Meanwhile, more kids come across the border every day—at about the same rate as in the last few years—so the ORR facilities are now bursting at the seams and the length of stay has gone from a couple of weeks to several months. Tornillo was created in June as a temporary facility to handle the overflow. The government has extended the date of its closure several times, from July, to September, to December, and the latest rumor is 2020.
The kids have a right to a lawyer but not to a free one, and of course they have no money to hire one. They do get an “intake screening” by a lawyer within a few days of arrival, to start to figure out their best path through the immigration system. That screening activates a network of non-profit legal services throughout the country, and if the non-profits have capacity, kiddo ends up with a pro bono lawyer who represents him throughout the rest of the process. If not, then not.