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Trump administration waived strict background checks for staff at migrant child detention camp

A government watchdog memo said the administration waived stringent background checks for staff at a detention camp for migrant children.
Image: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services photo of Unaccompanied Alien Children sheltered at Tornillo Texas
A tent city set up to hold immigrant children separated from their parents or who crossed the U.S. border on their own is seen in Tornillo, Texas, in a photo released Oct. 12.HHS / Reuters

Staff at a Texas detention camp holding thousands of migrant children were not undergoing FBI fingerprint checks, and the Trump administration waived stringent background check requirements for employees at the facility, a government watchdog memo said Tuesday.

The tent city in Tornillo was not conducting FBI background checks for staff at the facility as of late September, the memorandum from the Department of Health and Human Services' inspector general's office said Tuesday.

"Instead, Tornillo is using checks conducted by a private contractor that has access to less comprehensive data, thereby heightening the risk that an individual with a criminal history could have direct access to children," the memo said.

The memo also said the facility does not employ enough staff clinicians for the mental health care needs of the migrant children it houses.

The facility holds more than 2,300 migrant girls and boys, mostly ages 13 to 17, according to The Associated Press.

Tesia Williams, a spokeswoman for the inspector general's office, said in a statement to NBC News that the memo was meant to documents meetings at which the inspector general was alerted to "serious safety and health vulnerabilities at an influx care facility in Tornillo, Texas: the lack of FBI fingerprint background checks on its approximately 1,300 Tornillo staff and the dangerously low number of clinicians serving children. Both issues warrant immediate attention because they pose substantial risks to children receiving care at this facility. We continue to follow these issues and look forward to receiving information on the corrective actions ACF has taken."

"Both issues warrant immediate attention because they pose substantial risks to children receiving care at this facility," Williams said.

ACF stands for the Administration for Children and Families, which is a part of the Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS. The Office of Refugee Resettlement, or ORR, is part of ACF.

The memo said the inspector general had since learned that ORR was working with the facility to remedy the fingerprint check issue. It was unclear how many employees had since undergone the fingerprint checks.

The memo also said the inspector general had learned that the former director of ORR had signed off on waiving requirements for child abuse and neglect checks for incoming staff at Tornillo in a memorandum in June, two days before the facility began operating.

The memo said the inspector general also found that, as of Sept. 25, BCFS Health and Human Services, the nonprofit contracted to run the facility, was not conducting FBI fingerprint checks on its staff.

It also found that ORR was not aware that the fingerprint checks were not being done, the memo said, citing discussions with agency staff and senior management at the Tornillo facility.

The memo said that in later communications, the inspector general learned that ORR was working with BCFS to secure completing the fingerprint checks for staff.

HHS — which blamed "a broken immigration system" that encourages children to make the dangerous journey to the United States — told NBC News on Tuesday night that it began working with BCFS to resolve the issues in September.

It said that Tornillo now has enough clinicians to provide emergency mental health services and that when a child is found to have a mental health need that cannot be met at the facility, the child is transferred to a "more appropriate facility."

"In fact, a mental health clinician visits each child every day," the agency said.

BCFS did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Krista Piferrer, a spokeswoman, told the AP that the company was checking job candidates' criminal histories and running sex offender registry checks.

"Those are pretty comprehensive," Piferrer said. "Standing up the site, it's no easy feat, but we know what right looks like."

ORR's reasoning for the waiver was that the agency was under urgent pressure to open the camp quickly and that the state might not be willing or able to perform those child abuse and neglect checks for a detention facility under federal jurisdiction, the memo said.

The agency also justified its waiver on the assumption that Tornillo staff had already undergone FBI fingerprint background checks, according to the memo. But that is not the case, the inspector general said.

The facility has undergone a recent expansion since the administration first announced that it was opening the temporary shelter for a couple of hundred migrant children six months ago.

The camp was first designed to temporarily house about 450 children in June, when President Donald Trump's zero-tolerance policy separated over 2,500 migrant children from their parents. The majority of them have since been reunited, but HHS still oversees the care of migrant children and adolescents who come to the United States alone.

The inspector general's office requested in its memo that the Administration for Children and Families provide a written response on the actions being taken to ensure that Tornillo facility's employees are getting the required FBI background checks and that insufficient staffing of clinicians was being addressed within 30 days.

Vice News reported earlier Tuesday that workers at Tornillo had not received the mandated FBI fingerprint checks.

An HHS spokesperson told Vice that BCFS Health and Human Services was responsible for making sure the fingerprint checks were being conducted. But the company said it has been unable to do the checks because of a technicality in how it accesses the FBI databases, according to Vice.