STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We have news this morning of almost 15,000 children held in shelters by the United States. Federal contractors run the shelters, and they are filling up with young people, young migrants, mostly from Central America. The U.S. can place them with families but has changed the rules to do that less. NPR's John Burnett joins us from El Paso, Texas. Hey there, John.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: So why are these children in government custody?
BURNETT: Well, most of them are teenagers from Central America who traveled to the border alone. They're escaping poverty and gangs, and they want to ask for asylum. But the numbers keep rising. Last month, border agents report they were apprehending on average 175 of these so-called unaccompanied children every day.
BURNETT: And the network of these government-contracted shelters is just running out of space. They're at 92 percent capacity. One source who's familiar with the operation out here in Tornillo, in far west Texas, the biggest shelter of all, told me there are barely any beds left. This is unsustainable.
INSKEEP: Do they have to be in shelters?
BURNETT: Well, they could add even more beds for these kids, which is expensive and controversial, or they can seek a way to release these children from custody even quicker. Right now, you see, the kids are caught in a bottleneck. The feds have to screen an adult sponsor who steps forward to take the child, and that's usually a family member already living in the U.S. And then the child stays with them while their asylum case is pending.
But that vetting process has slowed to a crawl, partly because of a requirement that was added last year. Anybody who lives in the sponsor's household has to be fingerprinted and get a criminal background check. The Trump administration says they're just taking extra precautions to protect the children from, say, a convicted child molester. And so by relaxing that screening process, I was told, Tornillo has 1,300 kids ready to release today.
INSKEEP: Tornillo. That's a major facility that we're talking about here, where these kids are. Has the government decided what it's going to do?
BURNETT: Well, I spoke with a senior official at the Department of Health and Human Services, and they're the ones who oversee the shelters, and she told me it's too early to say what action, if any, they'll take to relieve this shelter overload, that everything's on the table. The official said, we continue to look for options that don't jeopardize the child's safety. And she added, the real problem is a broken immigration system that acts as a perverse incentive for all these young people to cross the border in the first place.
INSKEEP: Have you been able to learn what it's like inside the shelters holding these almost-15,000 kids?
BURNETT: So Tornillo's the largest shelter in the country with 2,800 kids. I took a tour out there in the summer when it was smaller. The boys and girls stay in these big sand-colored tents lined up in rows on a patch of desert just a few-hundred yards from the Rio Grande. The shelter's staffed up, at present, to care for 3,000 children. So they're going to max out any week now. Today, the average stay in Tornillo is 50 days, and that's worrying. Child welfare experts say detention is never in the best interest of a child. It's bad for them mentally and physically.
And this is why Tornillo gets so much criticism. Protesters are out there all the time calling for it to be shut down. Here's El Paso County Commissioner Vince Perez. Tornillo's in his precinct, and he complains it's giving the county a bad name.
VINCE PEREZ: We're already battling this perception that it's inherently a violent place. Now you have a massive detention facility where you have thousands of children that are detained there. It's certainly deplorable, what's happening.
INSKEEP: OK. This shelter has been criticized not just by protesters, but by federal inspectors. What happened?
BURNETT: Well, last month, the inspector general of Health and Human Services identified two problems. Staffers at Tornillo didn't undergo FBI fingerprint background checks, and there weren't enough mental health clinicians for the kids. The nonprofit that runs Tornillo is now addressing both issues and they'll - but they want to say, anybody who's listening, Tornillo is not a detention facility. The kids are not in cages. They provide humane, comfortable living conditions, healthy meals, medical care, classes, soccer fields and soon a big Christmas celebration.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's John Burnett. Thanks.
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