TORNILLO — The Trump administration announced in June it would open a temporary shelter for up to 360 migrant children in this isolated corner of the Texas desert. Less than six months later, the facility has expanded into a detention camp holding thousands of teenagers — and it shows every sign of becoming more permanent.
By Tuesday, 2,324 largely Central American boys and girls between the ages of 13 and 17 were sleeping inside the highly guarded facility in rows of bunk beds in canvas tents, some of which once housed first responders to Hurricane Harvey. More than 1,300 teens have arrived since the end of October.
Rising from the cotton fields and dusty roads not far from the fence marking the border between the U.S. and Mexico, the camp has rows of beige tents and golf carts that ferry staffers carrying walkie-talkies. Teens with identical haircuts and government-issued shirts and pants can be seen walking single file from tent to tent, flanked by staff at the front and back.
More people are detained in Tornillo’s tent city than in all but one of the nation’s 204 federal prisons, and construction continues.
None of the 2,100 staff are going through rigorous FBI fingerprint background checks, according to a government watchdog memo published Tuesday. “Instead, Tornillo is using checks conducted by a private contractor that has access to less comprehensive data, thereby heightening the risk that an individual with a criminal history could have direct access to children,” the memo says.
Federal plans to close Tornillo by Dec. 31 may be impossible to meet. There aren’t 2,300 extra beds in other facilities, and a contract obtained by the AP shows the project could continue into 2020. Planned closures have already been extended three times since this summer.
The teens at Tornillo were not separated from their families at the border. Almost all came on their own hoping to join family members in the United States.
The camp’s population may grow even more if migrants in the caravans castigated by President Donald Trump enter the U.S. Federal officials have said they may fly caravan teens who arrive in San Diego directly to El Paso, then bus them to Tornillo, according to a nonprofit social service provider who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to publicly discuss the matter.
As the population inside the camp swells, young detainees’ anguish has deepened.
“The few times they let me call my mom I would tell her that one day I would be free, but really I felt like I would be there for the rest of my life,” a 17-year-old from Honduras who was held at Tornillo earlier this year told AP. “I feel so bad for the kids who are still there. What if they have to spend Christmas there? They need a hug, and nobody is allowed to hug there.”
He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal from immigration authorities.
The nonprofit agency contracted to run Tornillo says it is proud of its work. It says it is operating the facility with the same precision and care used for shelters put up after natural disasters.
“We don’t have anything to hide. This is an exceptionally run operation,” said Krista Piferrer, a spokeswoman for BCFS Health and Human Services, a faith-based organization.
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Mark Weber, said no decisions have been made about whether Tornillo will close by year’s end as scheduled.
“Whatever it is we decide to do, in the very near future, we’ll do a public notice about that,” he said.
In June, as detention centers for migrant children overflowed, Scott Lloyd, director of HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, signed a memo granting a waiver to staff up Tornillo without the required child abuse and neglect checks, which flag any potential employee who has a record of hurting a child. There were two reasons, according to a memo by HHS’s inspector general’s office: first, there was pressure to move quickly to open the detention camp, and second, Lloyd’s agency assumed Tornillo staff had already undergone FBI fingerprint checks. They had not.
Lloyd, under fire for his handling of the migrant crisis, was transferred out of the refugee resettlement branch and to a different division of HHS last week. Weber did not immediately respond to questions as to why the department waived background checks.
Failing to properly check staffers’ backgrounds “can lead to potential abuse and neglect of these kids,” said Dr. Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Since the facility opened, BCFS has been checking job candidates’ national and local criminal histories and doing multi-state sex offender registry checks, the nonprofit’s spokesperson, Piferrer, said.
BCFS has filed more than 30 reports on “significant incidents” at Tornillo since June, some involving interactions between children and staff, but none of a sexual nature, Piferrer said.
Jeffrey Harp, a retired FBI assistant special agent in charge, told the AP that FBI fingerprint background checks can be completed in a few minutes and reveal much more information about job candidates than checks that simply run a person’s name against criminal history databases.
“How do you know the person is who they say they are unless you do a fingerprint check? They can’t lie about their fingerprints, but they can lie about their name or take on someone else’s identity who has a crystal clean record,” Harp said.
What tells a high school’s story? Its building? Student achievements? Successful graduates? Photos and books? Living memories?
That was the challenge for members of the Central Texas African-American Heritage Foundation and A.J. Moore High School graduates in creating an exhibit on the school that’s currently on display at the East Waco Library.
“The Legacy of A.J. Moore High School,” contained largely in a glass-topped display table and a large wall panel near a corner of the library, touches on all of the above elements in telling the story of Waco’s black high school, which educated more than 4,000 students over nearly a century before closing its doors in 1971.
It’s part of a series of exhibits the CTAAHF plans for the East Waco Library over the next two years as part of the organization’s efforts to make Waco more aware of its African-American history and culture, said foundation chair Don Wright. “Our mission is to get this history out to the people,” he said.
Members of the heritage organization previously worked with the Historic Waco Foundation in its 2017 exhibit “Footprints of African Americans in McLennan County.” That wide-ranging project touched on subjects that the CTAAHF wants to explore in the future.
First comes the story of Waco’s A.J. Moore High School, long a touchstone in the black community. Distinguished graduates, state championships, community respect and the affection of former students for the school’s leadership — all were part of the story organizers wanted to tell. “We wanted to show the impact of A.J. Moore on people’s lives,” explained retired educator and Moore High grad Lorea Johnson, 70.
City officials readily agreed to the CTAAHF’s proposal to showcase parts of Waco’s black history and Wright said an important question about city liability for displayed objects was resolved when the library secured the display table being used for the “Legacy” exhibit. Library director Essy Day gladly welcomed the chance to show the exhibits. “We are so happy to partner with this group. It’s all about education,” she said.
A.J. Moore High School took its name from Waco educator Alexander James Moore, who started a school for Waco’s black population in his home in 1875. In 1881, enrollment was large enough to move to a building at Clay Avenue and River Street, then called Second District Negro School. Moore served as principal until 1905.
The school building burned down in 1921, and a new school built two years later at 600 S. First St. opened with Moore’s name in tribute to his work. That school housed grades kindergarten through 12 from 1923 to 1952, when it became a high school with grades seven through 12.
It closed in 1971 due to school desegregation and urban renewal, and was torn down. The Moore name continued to live on in Jefferson-Moore High School, the current location of Indian Spring Middle school. After Jefferson-Moore High School was closed in a Waco Independent School District consolidation in 1987, the name lived on at A.J. Moore Academy, which is now within University High School. Moore High’s lion mascot also became the mascot for today’s Waco High.
There’s a state historical marker about A.J. Moore High School at the former Waco Downtown Farmers Market location off University Parks Drive, but little from the high school remains outside of artifacts and memories.
“If you know the history of African-Americans in Waco, you know that almost all of our cornerstones and buildings of our history are gone. That is very painful,” said Beulah Barksdale, 86, a 1948 Moore High graduate who helped organize the “Legacy” exhibit.
Paige Davis, collections manager for the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, also helped with the Moore High School project and found a familiar challenge: A lot of the artifacts desired to tell a full story are lost to history.
Still, a web of Moore High alumni responded to the call for items — two of the lion sculptures come from Barksdale’s celebrated doll collection as well as several of her yearbooks — and Wright pointed out that the current “Legacy” exhibit couldn’t hold all the items donated. As a result, it will be refreshed every few weeks with new items.
Notable Moore High grads recognized in the library exhibit include World War II naval hero Doris Miller; U.S. District 30 Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Dallas); Vivienne Malone-Mayes, Baylor University’s first black teacher; Negro League baseball pitcher Andy Cooper, Waco’s only member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame; Rayford Wilkins Jr., former CEO of telecommunications company Southwestern Bell; the Rev. Robert Gilbert, first black graduate (with Barbara Walker) of Baylor University; James A. Harris, a member of the nuclear physics team that discovered two elements; Marilyn Jones, first black Waco City Council member; Dalton Gooden, first black Waco firefighter; and Henrietta Napier, first black nurse for the Waco-McLennan County Health Department.
Photos, yearbooks and class reunion commemoration books show Moore High’s wide class offerings in science, welding, beautician training, band and choir. Sports also are represented with the school fielding teams in football (state champions in 1964), baseball and golf.
The “Legacy” exhibit also has link to an audio clip from Baylor University’s Institute for Oral History, a memory from an interview by Waco resident Robert Aguilar, who recalled seeing Moore students walk by Waco High on their way to school and wondering why. (The answer: racially segregated schools.)
Objects only go so far in carrying a school’s history, and often it’s an intangible human quality like pride, respect or compassion that can’t be captured under glass. Johnson recalled how the high school anchored community celebrations, from elementary school students attending presentations to the high school’s annual Christmas program.
“There was a lot of pride at Moore High,” he recalled. “Mr. (J.J.) Wilson was my principal, and he instilled in us that he wanted us to do well. There was a solid push from everybody, from the principal to the teachers, to do that.”
Barksdale, who walked with her brother five blocks to a south Waco bus stop each morning to get to school, had similar fond memories of what Moore teachers and administrators provided, not only in quality of instruction, but in inspiration and motivation to succeed.
“I can say this: We couldn’t have had a better school,” she said. Barksdale graduated from Moore High at age 16 and attended Fisk University in Nashville, with a summer spent at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, both schools of considerable reputation. “When we went to college, we were not behind,” she said.
Her years at college with students from across the country also revealed another of Moore High’s intangibles: adults who cared. “We knew we were loved and students from the North were tolerated,” Barksdale said.
Fire overtook a large home north of China Spring as area fire crews worked to extinguish the blaze Tuesday, authorities said.
Flames leaped from the home in the 300 block of Kandus Cove in the Hills of Childress Creek neighborhood as a China Spring Volunteer Fire Department crew arrived at about 11:45 a.m., China Spring Volunteer Fire Lt. Cory Newman said.
“It was fully involved when we got here,” Newman said later in the afternoon. “We have fire crews from Speegleville, Waco, Valley Mills and China Spring out here.”
Waco Fire Battalion Chief Robert Beechner said two Waco fire crews responded to assist China Spring firefighters. No occupants were trapped in the house, prompting firefighters to work from the outside and protect neighboring property.
“We got the ladder from truck 2 involved and we had to put a lot of water on it,” Beechner said. “There was no one inside by the time we arrived, but whether there was anyone inside the home when the fire started, that is something we are not sure of.”
No injuries were reported in the incident.
The Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office is investigating, Newman said.
Residents may have an easier time finding Section 8 housing in wealthier areas of McLennan, Hill and Somervell counties after a federal rule forced the Waco Housing Authority and other agencies to raise rental rate caps.
The Waco Housing Authority was forced to comply with new rental rate requirements after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development increased the local agency’s stature from a “medium” authority to a “large” authority, the same as housing authorities in El Paso and Dallas, based on the number of public housing and Section 8 housing tenants.
Previously, HUD calculated a housing authority’s size based only on public housing tenants.
Section 8 assistance had been the same countywide, based on an average fair market rate for the entire area. With the change, assistance will be tailored for each of McLennan County’s 33 ZIP codes based on fair market rates for each smaller area.
The change in Waco’s size classification also comes after multiple civil rights groups sued the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development last year for suspending the Obama-era rule requiring ZIP code-based rates, intended to increase low-income families’ access to affordable housing. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia sided against HUD and ordered the federal agency to reinstate the rule.
“What (the rule) does is deconcentrate poverty out of Waco, or to other parts of Waco, rather than so much of it being concentrated in East Waco and South Waco,” Waco Housing Authority CEO Milet Hopping said. “This is to make sure that they’re (Section 8 tenants) not being cheated out of that right to live in any area that they want.”
Before the change in classification, a family that qualified for a two-bedroom Section 8 voucher through the Waco Housing Authority had to find a place that met HUD requirements for less than $840 per month, the countywide average at the time.
With the change, a family’s two-bedroom voucher in Hewitt, the ZIP code with the highest market rate, would be limited to less than $1,070 per month.
A person or family on the Waco Housing Authority’s Section 8 waiting list could wait for three years before getting HUD funding because of the limited number of vouchers Waco receives, Hopping said.
About 2,700 individuals and families are on the waiting list, according to recent Waco Housing Authority estimates.