By Jon Herskovitz
TORNILLO, Texas (Reuters) - A small Texas farming community near El Paso with no traffic lights, a cotton gin and two dollar stores has found itself playing the uncomfortable host to a U.S. government tent city for children suspected of illegal border crossings.
In a quiet corner of Texas with vast desert spaces, dusty roads and cotton fields, Tornillo was thrust into the limelight when the first tents went up last week.
The tent city has come under scrutiny amid outcry at home and abroad over the Trump administration's policy of separating parents and children after families cross the border from Mexico illegally.
President Donald Trump, who had staunchly defended the policy and sought to blame Democrats even though his administration implemented the strict adherence to immigration law, changed course on Wednesday and planned to sign an order ending the immediate separation of families at the border.
A local congressman has said that only "unaccompanied minors" were housed in the Tornillo facility but it was not immediately clear whether they were apprehended without adults or separated from parents after apprehension.
Will Hurd, the Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives whose district includes Tornillo, said in comments prepared by his office that "these types of tent cities would not be going up" without the new policy.
Hurd, who said "we should not use children as a deterrent, plain and simple" in a social media post, last week visited the facility, which near a border crossing point. In the statement released by his office, he said it appeared to be safe and well run.
Each tent can hold 20 children and two adults. Those in the camp are currently 16 and 17 year-old boys, Hurd said.
Children who traveled with their parents and were then separated when the adults were apprehended are at the center of the current storm.
In Tornillo, a town of about 1,600 people some 30 miles (50 km) southeast of El Paso with a large Latino population, it was difficult to find anyone who would voice support for the policy.
"I wish that Tornillo as a town was not going to be remembered throughout the nation as the place where there are tents for children," said Rosy Vega-Barrio, superintendent of the Tornillo Independent School District. Tornillo does not have a government or a police department.
The family separations began after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in April the government would prosecute all immigrants apprehended while crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.
While parents are in custody pending trial, their children are moved into government-managed facilities, a separation that looked set to end with Trump's new order. An administration official said the order would require families to be detained together if they were caught crossing the border illegally.
Vega-Barrio said a county official described the detention camp to her as a "mini-prison" and informed her that the children there would not attend Tornillo's schools.
FIGHTING THE HEAT
For many in Tornillo, the facility is a different world, set off a few miles from the town and staffed by people who live in other places. Aerial photographs from Reuters show the tent city almost doubled in size from Monday to Tuesday to house nearly 20 large tents, each equipped with air conditioning to fight off summer temperatures that hover above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) daily.
Children accompanied by guards can be seen walking single file through the facility, where portable toilets and showers have been set up. Last week, children could be seen kicking around a soccer ball on land baked dry by the unrelenting sun. An aerial view showed that an artificial turf playing field was being constructed.
The tents have bunk beds, according to the Administration for Children & Families, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which has a hand in the running the facility. It has not let in the media to see it.
The HHS did not respond to a request for comment about the camp, which Hurd said could hold as many as 400 children.
U.S. immigration officials have experience in setting up a tent city at the facility, which was used in 2016 when there was a surge in migrants from Central America trying to enter the United States, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said.
Beto O’Rourke, a U.S. Democratic congressman representing El Paso, said that U.S. government officials blocked him from seeing the children housed at the camp. He was at the facility on Sunday in a protest against the separation policy.
"They let you come in the front door as a member of Congress but they don’t let you see the kids," he said.
For a quarter century, Josie Pogorzelski, 60, has lived in a house a few yards away from the immigration facility, which has kept to its side of the fence with little bother to her.
"I didn't know what was happening next door until I saw it on TV this morning," she said on Tuesday.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Frank McGurty and Frances Kerry)