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What Are Conditions Really Like In the Government's Tent City for Immigrant Youth – And How Can Churches Serve Them?

Courtesy: HHS
Courtesy: HHS

Before he toured, Pastor Gus Reyes had seen the media coverage of the Trump administration's shelter for immigrant youth in remote Tornillo, Texas. On Tuesday, the Health and Human Services inspector general issued a report outlining concerns about inadequate mental health care and a waiving of FBI fingerprint checks for staff.

Reyes, who serves as the chief operating officer of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said he had low expectations when he and a small group of evangelical leaders arrived in two vehicles on Wednesday.

Instead, Reyes said he was "shocked and surprised" to see children that seemed happy and staff that seemed to genuinely care for them.

"It was pretty impressive," he told CBN News on Thursday. Reyes described adolescents that were quick to acknowledge they liked the food and appreciated that they had "plenty." He was also pleased to learn that the staff offers Catholic and evangelical services for the youth and that they're allowed to post artwork and even Scripture verses in their living areas.

Twice, Reyes said, he prayed with small groups of teenage boys. They spoke optimistically about reuniting with family in the States but also revealed concerns about family members left behind and worry about how long they might stay in the camp.

Pastor Todd Lamphere, who leads global outreach for Paula White Ministries, told CBN News that the group toured at the invitation of Shannon Royce, the director for the center of faith and opportunity initiatives at the Department of Health and Human Services.

CBN News was unable to reach Royce on Friday.

Lamphere said he also was concerned about the environment before he visited but like Reyes, he left with a favorable impression. "The kids are responding marvelously. They're being treated magnificently," he said.

Lamphere described weekly counseling sessions for the youth, phone calls to parents twice a week and educational and recreational activities.

He praised the mental health clinicians in glowing terms. "There's a high degree of professionalism. There is a deep sense of calling with those that work with these children," he said.

But Lamphere did acknowledge that more clinicians would probably be a good idea.

That's a big concern in the inspector general's report, one that has some faith-based groups alarmed.

The report highlights that while federal policy dictates that migrant youth shelters must have one mental health clinician for every 12 kids, it allows a ratio of 1 to 100 at Tornillo. BCFS, the contractor that runs Tornillo, told the Associated Press that it currently has one clinician for every 50 children at Tornillo.

Both Bethany Christian Services, which cares for unaccompanied immigrant children (UACs) in foster homes, and World Relief, which provides an array of refugee and immigrant services, told CBN News that more is needed.

Emily Gray, the senior vice president of US Ministries for World Relief, said the youth need help addressing the trauma they've endured, both at home and during their journey to the border.

"They are at risk for developing very bad patterns of coping with trauma if that trauma isn't addressed early," she explained.

Dona Abbott oversees Bethany's foster program for immigrant children and said she's very concerned about the current amount of care available.

The best option for the children she believes is either foster care or a small group setting where they can form one-on-one relationships with adults. 

"We know that children, particularly children who have been traumatized, who have lost much, need the comfort, the safety, the security that an adult can provide," she said. "These children will be anxious, depressed, uncertain about their future, looking for safety."

Bethany is seeking to expand its foster care program but so far, can only provide for 100 youth at any one time. That's nowhere close to meeting the need. More than 2,300 youth currently live at Tornillo, with more than 1,300 arriving just since the end of October.

Both Abbott and Gray said the government is also risking children's safety by waiving the FBI fingerprint checks for their caregivers. That allows a predator to pass background checks using a false identity they said.

Kathyrn Freeman, the director of public policy for the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission, also visited with Reyes and Lamphere. Wednesday. She told CBN News that she does not expect that the facility will become permanent.

"I think it is not the perfect solution and I think that ultimately was expressed to us that they would like to see it closed," she said.

Freeman said she also observed children who seemed optimistic about their care and their future.

Both she and Reyes hope that they can facilitate more ministry at the shelter. Both said they get regular calls from church leaders who want to serve immigrant children at Tornillo and elsewhere.


"I think there is a huge opportunity for ministry," said Freeman.

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