From a field of ripe cotton, the triangular tops of giant tents swoop up behind a covered fence next to a border crossing where drivers tow banged-up used vehicles into Mexico. From the outside, this is about all that's visible of the temporary shelter for migrant children set up on a remote stretch of West Texas desert.
Reporters got a rare glimpse inside the facility on Friday. It opened in June outside the tiny town of Tornillo, Texas, and, at the time, hosted 400 teenage boys. Last month, the federal government announced it was expanding the shelter's capacity to 3,800 beds — making it the largest shelter in the system for kids who cross the border solo.
Before entering the facility, a government official ordered reporters to put away their technology.
"No photos, no recording on the inside," the official said. "If anybody tries to sneak something ... we'll probably ask you to leave."
The shelter is spread out in an "L" like shape with two segregated wings for boys and girls. Music wafted from an enclosed dining hall and shelter staff darted about in four-wheeled utility vehicles. It's run like a mini city with its own ambulances, firefighters, urgent care clinic and sanitation crew. At both ends are soccer fields with artificial turf. Friday's lunch menu included red tamales, refried beans and rice.
The children, ages 13 through 17, attend daily classes in math, social studies and English. Testing at the shelter revealed most of them have the equivalent of a second to fourth grade education.
They sleep on bunk beds in large air-conditioned tents that they decorate with paper flowers and fake spider webs for Halloween. Tucked beside their pillow is a journal, which they get time to write in before bedtime. According to shelter workers, a counselor checks in on the well-being of each teen daily.
BCFS, a nonprofit that specializes in emergency response worldwide, is the government contractor that runs the shelter. Its incident commander at Tornillo was also in charge of the shelter system BCFS set up after Hurricane Harvey.
The need for more bed space is driven by longer stays within the shelter system. Migrant children are currently staying at shelters for an average of 59 days, according to data provided by the Department of Health and Human Services. That's twice as long as last year's average, and is straining capacity at roughly 100 federally funded shelters nationwide.
Mark Greenberg worked in the Obama administration's Department of Health and Human Services. He helped oversee the migrant child program.
"We now have the largest number of children in shelter in the history of the program," he said. "But it's not because arrivals are at a historic high, it's because it is taking much longer for children to be released from the shelter system."
One reason, Greenberg said, is because some of the children's relatives are reluctant to claim them. HHS is now sharing sponsor information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE has since used that information to arrest at least 40 undocumented sponsors.
Mark Weber, a spokesman for HHS, acknowledged that their stricter vetting process is causing delays, but rejected the idea that sponsors were fearful to come forward.
"We don't want to place a child in a home where there's a potential threat," he said. "So we have to balance speed with safety."
Weber also blamed the delays on the influx of children crossing the border. But while the number of unaccompanied minors is slightly up from last year, it's significantly below the record high set in 2014.
"The government is running an emergency shelter at a time when there is no emergency," said Jennifer Podkul, director of policy for KIND, a legal organization that represents kids in immigration court.
"Even when you have...a program that's especially designed for this population, that caters to them...it's still not in the best interest of the child to be separated from caring family and in a stable environment outside detention," she said.
Temporary shelters differ from their more permanent counterparts in two key ways. Because they must go online quickly, they're subject to less oversight — namely state regulation. And their price tag, according to federal officials, is three times higher.
Migrant kids are moved to Tornillo when they come closer to being released to their sponsors, a move that frees up space at other more permanent shelters. Even at Tornillo, however, close to 900 teens — more than half the population — are waiting on the results of fingerprint testing of their sponsors before they can be released. Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.