New details have emerged about the Trump administration’s plans to build a migrant jail for children and families at a Texas army post riddled with toxic leftovers from past military operations, including spills, unexploded ordnance and a dump contaminated by hazardous waste.
While the administration has apparently scrapped plans to build a “temporary shelter” for migrants at Fort Bliss, a U.S. Army post on the border of New Mexico and Texas, documents released to the environmental group Earthjustice under the Freedom of Information Act this week shine a light on the government’s rush to rapidly expand detention space for migrants under President Trump’s harsh immigration policies. Approximately 50,000 people are incarcerated in U.S. immigration jails and holding pens on any given day, and nearly 70 percent have no prior criminal conviction.
Last year, the Trump administration responded to an influx of migrants at the southern border with a “zero tolerance” policy that packed children and families into border cages and desert camps. With the White House intent on incarcerating all unauthorized border crossers, the demand for space in immigration jails and holding pens skyrocketed. In July 2018, as the administration dealt with the fallout from its now-defunct policy of separating children from their parents, reports surfaced of a warehouse in Texas where hundreds of children were kept in series of metal cages.
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Meanwhile, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which runs the federal program for unaccompanied migrant children, and the Department of Homeland Security were quietly discussing plans with the Army to open a “camp” for migrant children and families on the outskirts of El Paso at Fort Bliss. In 2016, a jail at Fort Bliss temporarily imprisoned up to 7,200 Central American teenagers for several months before closing, according to HHS and reports. This time, the population was estimated to start at 2,000 and grow to 4,000, with a maximum capacity of 7,500 adults and children, according to internal emails between government officials. HHS typically detains unaccompanied minors for several weeks before placing them with family members or a sponsor.
Word of the plans to reopen a camp at Fort Bliss set off alarm bells among environmental watchdogs and advocates for migrants. Located in all corners of the country, aging military bases, Army posts and weapons depots are notorious sites of pollution and hazardous waste. Toxic leftovers from open burn pits, unexploded ordnances lying about old firing ranges, and plumes of cancer-causing PFAS pollution in groundwater are just a few of the hazards that can be found at military installations nationwide. Many are home to Superfund sites, which require long-term responses from the government to cleanup of hazardous pollutants.
Advocates had reason to be concerned about Fort Bliss, where there are at least 80 sites regulated under a federal program for hazardous waste. While the planned jail would be several miles from an old firing range and a former nuclear weapons bunker, emails released to Earthjustice indicate that one proposed site for the jail would be 2,000 feet from an old dump contaminated with asbestos and other toxic hazards.
There were efforts to clean up the dump in the 1990s, but post-cleanup soil samples still contained levels of arsenic 19 times the federal limit for residential areas, according to an Earthjustice analysis of Fort Bliss records. Illegal dumping is believed to have continued there for years, and Earthjustice concluded that testing methods used to determine levels of contamination at the site were inadequate.
Records show that Fort Bliss staff raised questions about the dump’s potential environmental hazards when drawing up plans for the proposed migrant jail, including groundwater contamination. However, federally-required environmental analyses had already been completed in the area for different projects in years past, and officials believed they could use these documents to speed up regulatory approvals. These prior environmental assessments were for military projects, not a jail where children would be living and playing.
“It’s pretty appalling that they would take the same environmental assessment and apply it to this very different situation, where you have to worry about kids playing in the soil, and clearly the first environmental assessment didn’t consider those types of impacts at site,” Earthjustice Attorney Melissa Legge told Truthout.
Fort Bliss is not the only military post where the Trump administration has considered building jails for detained migrants. In February, Earthjustice and other groups exposed plans to build an immigrant jail for up to 7,500 unaccompanied children partially atop a landfill at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas. The plans were eventually scrapped.
With a spike in the number of unaccompanied children arriving at the border overwhelming existing HHS facilities, the Trump administration considered building migrant jails for kids at three different military bases in Georgia, Montana and Oklahoma earlier this year. Each base is home to at least one Superfund site.
“It sometimes feels like they can do this secretly because they are using military bases and the public doesn’t have access to them, so they can consider these plans behind closed doors, and we’re always playing catch up,” Legge said, referring to efforts by environmental and migrant rights groups to watchdog the mass incarceration of immigrants and asylum seekers.
Press officers for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and did not respond to emails seeking further information about Fort Bliss. In a statement, HHS said military facilities are a “choice of last resort” for temporarily sheltering unaccompanied migrant children when large numbers are showing up at the southern border, and the agency ultimately decided against Fort Bliss in 2018. A spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Texas said the agency studied “various options” for significantly expanding “processing capacity” for migrants over the past year and decided to build tent-like structures in West Texas, the Rio Grande valley and southern Arizona. These temporary holding pens are not located on military properties.
It remains unclear whether the environmental concerns at Fort Bliss are one reason why the Trump administration abandoned plans to build an immigrant jail there, at least for now. Earlier this year, the administration announced rule changes that would allow the indefinite detention of migrant families, but the regulations are currently held up in court. However, the push to build immigrant jails near contaminated military sites suggests that Trump’s decision to respond to an influx of migrants and asylum seekers with punitive policies rooted in mass incarceration forced the government to scramble in search of options — even if they put children’s health at risk.
This story has been updated.