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UPDATED Nov. 28, 11:28 a.m.: HHS replied to VICE News in a statement that they have been working with BCFS to resolve the background check issues since September, but they did not respond to questions about why new workers are still not getting the checks.
UPDATED Nov. 27, 2:12 p.m.:
The Office of the Inspector General issued a memorandum Tuesday afternoon confirming VICE News' findings about a lack of fingerprinting background checks for staff at the Tornillo facility housing migrant kids. OIG said they'd conducted a site visit and found conditions "posing substantial risks to children receiving care" there. OIG is in the midst of conducting inspections of 45 different facilities but the problems flagged at Tornillo with background checks were so significant they warranted this "early alert" memorandum.
The report confirmed the site is not conducting required FBI fingerprint background checks for staff and that ORR was unaware of this fact, and that the name-based checks from private vendors BCFS was using instead are less comprehensive than FBI fingerprint checks. It also found that former ORR director Scott Lloyd issued a waiver for the facility's required Child Abuse and Neglect background checks in June, shortly before the facility opened — and that he'd erroneously cited the FBI fingerprints as a justification for the waiver.
The report said ORR is now working with BCFS to ensure fingerprinting, but workers VICE News spoke with who started as recently as this week still had not been fingerprinted. HHS has not responded to requests for comment on this finding. OIG declined to comment.
EL PASO, Texas — Since June, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement has been housing hundreds of unaccompanied migrant children in an emergency tent city on the U.S.-Mexico border in Tornillo, Texas, as they await placement with sponsors in the United States.
VICE News has learned that more than 2,000 workers currently on staff at the Tornillo facility have not received ORR-mandated FBI fingerprint background checks for their work there.
HHS guidance explicitly requires FBI fingerprint checks as part of the minimum standards for facilities to ensure the safety of children in their care. The purpose of the checks is to ensure workers caring for children have no serious criminal histories, including neglect or abuse.
Ironically, fingerprints are part of the reason many kids are stuck in Tornillo. HHS has mandated FBI fingerprint checks for sponsors for the children, and delays in receiving those prints and processing them have contributed to lengthening the average stay for children at the camp, HHS spokesman Mark Weber told VICE News. HHS says it requires these checks to keep kids safe and out of the hands of traffickers.
But the very people tasked with caring for the 1,800 children aged 13-17 in the camp in the interim aren’t receiving the same checks.
HHS and the nonprofit operating Tornillo under a federal grant, San Antonio–based BCFS Health and Human Services, offered conflicting accounts of why checks haven’t been happening.
HHS spokesman Weber said it was BCFS’ responsibility to ensure the fingerprinting was being done, and directed VICE News to the company. “It’s on the grantee to verify that the work’s been done,” he said.
But a BCFS spokesperson said the company and its contractors have long been unable to conduct fingerprint background checks on staff at Tornillo due to a technicality with how the company gets access to FBI databases.
Access to FBI databases by private entities requires a government sponsor, the official said, and HHS has told the company that it is not able to grant it that access. Generally, access would come through a state agency, but Tornillo is on federal land and is not subject to state jurisdiction.
The spokesperson said BCFS has been alerting HHS to this issue “for months,” and that the agency has not been able to resolve it.
“We have repeatedly asked for access to this system”
“We have repeatedly asked for access to this system,” the official said. “There isn’t so far a mechanism by which to access it. That’s not something that can be changed by BCFS.”
She said that the company does perform other forms of background checks on prospective Tornillo employees, like a national ADP criminal history check and a sex offender registry check, and conducts FBI checks at its other facilities.
HHS did not respond to follow-up questions about the BCFS claims or BCFS’ access to FBI databases for Tornillo.
Of the 2,000 workers with no FBI fingerprint checks at Tornillo, 1,265 are what’s known as “direct care” workers. They have the closest and most regular contact with children at the camp — supervising them in their tents, overseeing their meals, teaching them English, and otherwise interacting with them on a daily basis.
Twenty direct-care workers at Tornillo confirmed to VICE News that they had not been fingerprinted.
“No,” one said when asked if he’d had prints taken. “Were they supposed to? Is that illegal?”
BCFS hires many of its “direct care” workers through two entities: a San Antonio–based nonprofit called Endeavors and a private company called Favorite Healthcare Staffing in Kansas.
Endeavors declined to comment for this story, and Favorite Healthcare did not respond to requests for comment.
The staffing agencies recruit workers from across Texas and nationally to provide care for the children. When an agency gets an assignment to staff workers, former recruiters said, it’s a scramble to find as many people as possible, as quickly as possible.
The jobs are appealing, former recruiters and current workers said, because they pay about $18 an hour plus overtime — especially since many of the people who work direct care would otherwise be working minimum wage jobs.
Word spreads quickly among networks that an agency is hiring, and once they’ve been approved by an agency, workers travel from across the country on extremely short notice to attend orientation for what they call “camp.”
They work in two 12-hour shifts — day and night — to provide 24-hour supervision of children within Tornillo.
Most of the workers are housed in lower-end limited-service chain hotels scattered across El Paso, while some are locals who commute in.
Wearing green shirts emblazoned with the letters “DC” for “direct care” and bright yellow reflective construction jackets, they load onto buses that pick them up in the hotel lots for shifts that can last up to 15 hours including travel. When they return, they’re given meals inside the hotels and often go straight to their rooms to rest.
“The hours are long, and you get very little time for sleep”
“The hours are long, and you get very little time for sleep,” one current night shift worker said. “You have to be on the bus early; that’s the one problem, because you don’t sleep well.” She said she gets up for work at about 4:15 p.m., and returns as late as 9 a.m., and averages about five hours of sleep between those times.
The companies provide workers with two rotation options: 14 days on, one off, or 21 days on, two off. Some choose to work longer than that, and can work for more than a month without a break. Workers said they had almost no time to socialize or even leave their hotels between long hours at Tornillo.
They’re also easily replaced. Workers told us that they’d been told colleagues were fired for infractions like bringing a cell phone into camp and providing a child with a cough drop. BCFS confirmed that these would be fireable offenses that crossed boundaries.
Many workers expressed fondness for the children, and said they struggled not to develop personal connections with them. They are forbidden from touching the children; physical contact is limited to a fist bump.
Their descriptions of how the children are treated varied. Many employees said the children live well in the camp, with time for schooling and play. Others were more critical. “I think those kids are treated like cattle,” said one former worker, who staffed a camp in Chaparral, New Mexico, in 2016.
BCFS called the comparison “disgusting,” saying that there is order and routine, but that the children are well cared-for.
The official denied that a lack of fingerprints put children at risk.
“I don’t think they are necessary given the protocols put in place,” the official said. “The children are safe. But we would prefer to have the checks.”
Reporting contributed by Rita Chan, Lindsay Van Dyke and Antonia Hylton
Cover: Children and workers are seen at a tent encampment recently built near the Tornillo Port of Entry on June 19, 2018 in Tornillo, Texas. The Trump administration is using the Tornillo tent facility to house immigrant children separated from their parents after they were caught entering the U.S. under the administration's zero tolerance policy. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)