After Returning from Border, Merkley and Chu Introduce Legislation to Shut Down Tornillo Child Prison

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Following their visit to the Tornillo child tent prison on Saturday, U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and U.S. Representative Judy Chu (D-CA-27) today announced they are introducing bicameral legislation—the Shut Down Child Prison Camps Act—to shut down the facility and another similar “temporary” shelter in Florida immediately.

After Merkley and Chu’s delegation put pressure on the Administration over the weekend, the Trump Administration backed down earlier this week on a key policy that has kept thousands of children fleeing persecution abroad locked in prison camps like Tornillo. That policy change makes it possible to transfer thousands of children out of detention and into homes and schools—many placed with their own family members—making it inexcusable for the Administration to keep Tornillo open.

“It was absolutely chilling to see children locked up in a desolate, isolated tent prison in the desert,” said Merkley. “Children belong in homes, schools, and parks—not behind barbed wire. Our taxpayer dollars are being used to traumatize children by keeping them in a child prison camp instead of in the arms of their families. This is evil. We need to shut down Tornillo and end Trump’s war on children.”

“What I saw and learned in Tornillo was shocking and outrageous,” said Chu. “Thousands of children who fled horrors and endured a difficult journey are being housed in a tent city in the desert, watched over by staff who have not had to go through a background check, and forbidden from even walking from tent to tent without adult supervision. This makes children vulnerable to abuse, poses serious developmental challenges, and risks retraumatizing them, both of which will have long-term consequences. Worst of all, this is a choice that was made by this administration. Unaccompanied children have been and can be released to loved ones or family who will look after their safety and well-being. Instead, Trump is fomenting xenophobia and keeping them in the desert in the hands of people not trained to care for children. Children should not have to suffer a lifetime of damage because of a political choice Donald Trump is making. Simply put, this facility and the one in Homestead, Florida should not exist and must be shut down immediately.”

Currently, approximately 2,800 children are incarcerated at Tornillo. Of those, more than 2,000 have been in detention at Tornillo for longer than the 20 days required by the Flores settlement. The vast majority of the long-term child detainees have sponsors who have stepped forward to host them in the U.S.—most of whom are family members of the children—and approximately 1,300 of those sponsors have already cleared a background check. 

The Trump Administration had created a months-long administrative backlog by requiring every adult in a sponsor household to undergo a FBI fingerprint background check before a child could be transferred to their care. This week, following pressure created by the delegation over the weekend, the Trump Administration reversed course on the fingerprinting policy that has created long delays in the release of children.

In June, the Administration similarly backed down from its child separation policy following the outcry created by Merkley’s trips to the border on June 3 and Fathers’ Day, June 17.

At their visit to Tornillo on Saturday, Merkley and Chu, along with Sens. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) and Tina Smith (D-MN) and Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX-16), requested to speak with some of the children who have been living at Tornillo, to hear directly from them about their experiences of being incarcerated there. The request was denied by the Trump Administration Department of Health and Human Services.

Despite the fact that the tent prison has now been in operation for more than six months, the Trump Administration has continued to designate it as a “temporary” emergency shelter, allowing the administration to evade regulations meant to protect children. Homestead, another “temporary” shelter in Florida, would also be shut down by the legislation.