Fort Bliss, a military base in the desert outside of El Paso is A ‘Hellhole’ Border Camp, according to a recent Vice News Article. Kaitlin Hess, a federal whistleblower, recounts her experience as a volunteer at the border, where she experienced firsthand the dangerous and chaotic conditions in the facility.
Last spring, Hess answered the Biden administration’s call for volunteers at the border.
Upon arrival, she noticed hundreds of children being packed into tents where they would be stuck for weeks on end, lost in the system. Kids were crying and depressed, frustrated amidst the confusion of being separated from close relatives and siblings.
“This feels like a prison,” Hess told VICE News.“That was after a week of being there, I was just like, ‘This is absolutely not right.’”
She was horrified with the place, thinking “this is not a place for children. This is not a place for adults.” It was way worse than she could have imagined.
And now a year later, her and five other federal whistleblowers are concerned little has changed at Fort Bliss and other “Emergency Intake Sites” created by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to care for migrant children in early 2021.
According to VICE News, on Tuesday, The Government Accountability Project, the group that represents the whistleblowers, sent a letter warning members of Congress that the Biden Administration has failed to address the dire living conditions, describing the “gross mismanagement, chaos, and substandard conditions.”
The letter to Congress also listed the whistleblower’s previous allegations including:
• “Children held for weeks without basic needs such as clean underwear or bedding…”
• “Contractors with no experience or expertise in childcare regularly threatening children with deportation”
• “A culture of secrecy lacking any method to address numerous concerns in which bullying, rioting, and sexual harassment of children went unaddressed”
That the shelter is still operating under “emergency” status and warehousing hundreds of children, is raising alarms ahead of an expected migration surge that is to come in the following weeks due to a decision to end Title 42 – a trump-era policy that turns away all asylum seekers on public health grounds due to the pandemic.
This decision has federal officials preparing for a massive influx of people at the border. The letter also warns that spring brings seasonal migration that could “overwhelm HHS—potentially causing chaos and harming still more children.”
Leecia Welch, a lawyer who was part of a team that visited and interviewed several kids, called the shelter a “hellhole,” where she found 900 boys crammed into a single tent, many in dirty clothes and smelling like they hadn’t showered.
“In my opinion, Fort Bliss is not suitable even for short-term emergency care of children,” Welch said. “Despite improvements, it will never be OK to force hundreds, if not thousands, of traumatized children to live in soft-sided tents on a military base.”
Last year, an audio was leaked by the publication Reason, where a person running a training session for federal employees was saying kids were “dropping like flies” at Fort Bliss, and speaking candidly about the conditions in the tents.
They’re filthy,” the trainer was recorded saying. “They’re dirty. There’s food on the floor. There’s wet spots all over the place. The beds are dirty. I don’t know what’s going on or who’s responsible for ensuring that the dorms need to be clean, but we all need to be responsible for telling the minors to clean up after themselves.”
In the 2021 fiscal year, which ended last September, more than 122,000 unaccompanied children were handed off to HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement.
As of April 4, more than 10,300 migrant children are in HHS custody, with hundreds coming through the system each day.
A spokesperson for HHS issued a statement to VICE News that said the agency is meeting its legal responsibility to care for immigrant children and has moved to fix issues raised last year by the whistleblowers and others.
“We act quickly to address any concerns and have proactively closed sites that didn’t meet our standards,” said the spokesperson. “We act quickly to address any concerns and have proactively closed sites that didn’t meet our standards,” the HHS spokesperson said.
“It remains our policy to swiftly report any alleged instances of wrongdoing to the appropriate authorities. Currently, children spend, on average, only 14 days in care at the Emergency Intake Site at Fort Bliss and meet with a case manager weekly. We have over 80 mental health and behavioral counselors on site working with the children. We have increased case management services to unite children safely and expeditiously with family, while we continue to improve and streamline this process.”