After the weeks I spent sitting at the gate of the tent city for kids in Tornillo, Texas, I realized I was having a hard time seeing the forest for the trees. I texted friends asking them to give me the big picture. Accustomed to trench work, to being close to the ground, I often see the things no one else sees, while at the same time missing the things everyone else is seeing.
One of the biggest things that was weighing on me was that while offering continual observations from the ground, and listening to firsthand accounts from inside, I had done little to look into the faith-based organization that was running the tent city, Baptist Child and Family Services. That is why I was so grateful when University of Arizona professor, Dr. Elizabeth Jaeger, offered to begin the research into BCFS. Using her research as a starting point, I have attempted to reflect upon what is a faithful response to what we are seeing.
My mind has been particularly ill at ease, because time and again we have been given a date that Baptist Children and Family Services planned to end their involvement in Tornillo and shut down the tent city they were running for the United States Government. Yet, whenever the date drew close, it was extended, and it felt that promises were broken. It began to feel familiar; delay tactics in Texas are one thing I know well. Yet, why did BCFS stay involved? They were supposed to be crisis responders, making a temporary response to a momentary crisis created by family separations.
It is now four months later and the kids are still there. Permanent structures have been constructed in addition to the tents. The timeline is now dragging on through the end of 2018.
The initial crisis that BCFS was responding to, the zero-tolerance policy and consequent large numbers of children separated from their parents, has been expanded. Rather than working to reunify the families and children and then shut down, the vision of the tent city has grown to include unaccompanied minors of other forms. The facility has constantly expanded rather than contracted, leading up to the event that returned it to the public eye: the mass movement of kids, during the darkness of night, from shelters around the country to Tornillo. Capacity has been expanded to house close to 4,000 kids from the original 200. Bodies will have to be conscripted to fill those spots. An industry is being created.
As projected date of closure after projected date of closure has passed, one begins to wonder whether the situation that Baptist Child and Family Services find themselves in is similar to the quandary that Maria Hinojosa exposed in her two part interviewwith Juan Sanchez, the CEO of Southwest Key. In their conversation, Hinojosa draws out the economic and financial considerations that Juan Sanchez feels he must consider when lining up what may be best for the kids against the financial survival of an institution he has built.
Sometimes we start out with the best of intentions… but then there are salaries to be paid.
The CEO of Baptist Children and Family Services, Kevin Dunnin, for example, received a salary of $450,000 in 2013 (while the average salary for non-profit CEOs is closer to $285,000).
According to CNN, in June, a week after Tornillo opened, BCFS was expected to receive $127,000,000 from the US Government during the fiscal year. Since that first week, the number appears to have skyrocketed to between $428,569,971 and $441,234,738 (depending on whether you go by Issue Date Fiscal Year or Funding Fiscal Year respectively) according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. That is a lot of money, a lot of salaries. All relying on the continued imprisonment of children. All relying on the Administration’s policy of creating consequences in order to discourage sponsors from claiming children.
Beware the creation of an industry.
(Grants made to BCFS by US Gov. Source: Department of Health and Human Services)
Transparency and Accountability
This leads us to some very important questions. First, the question of transparency and accountability. According to a 2014 article, concerns have been raised in the past to the Department of Health and Human Services about the lack of transparency exhibited by BCFS. If you were to look at their website, perhaps as a potential donor, you will not see any mention of the unaccompanied minor facilities, that presumably make up a good percentage of their income. While we can assume that running a tent city has not always been the history of BCFS, which began as an orphanage in Texas, that is the history that it is writing right now.
With each day that passes, and each child that spends another week or month in the desolation of Tornillo, we are normalizing the imprisonment of innocent children. With each person that signs a non-disclosure agreement to enter, and exits carrying the warm impression intentionally created for them and compassion for those that work there, normalization is carried back to the communities they inhabit.
How soon we forget our original horror.
When you open the website for BCFS, it opens with an image of a young blonde woman, and the words “Empowering Youth Through Education.” However, until a new press release was issued this week saying that children at Tornillo would be receiving instruction from teachers, they have only been provided with optional workbooks to work on if they choose. Establishing educational opportunities is surely a necessary and welcome change from the past 4 months. One would presume that the requirements to abide by State regulations, stipulated by the grants BCFS receives, should already have been being respected and that education should already have been being offered. However, Tornillo, being on Federal property, is not subject to State inspections or enforcement.
It has been difficult at times for advocates all along the border in Texas and Arizona to know how to respond. Most of the responses that have taken place have been directed towards the more profitable Southwest Key. Over the past few months, many advocates have restrained themselves from bringing attention to situations, fearing that children will be moved to even worse locations. To many, Tornillo seems like the worst-case scenario, but others fear that moving the kids out of sight to military bases would be even worse. It is hard to know what to do.
One thing I do know: we must fight normalizing this, and we must fight against the creation of one more mass incarceration institution reliant on bodies for income.
Part of me wonders if we are too late… has all of this already been happening, and already been established for years under our very noses? At the same time, looking at the numbers from the Department of Health and Human Services, I can see that income for both Southwest Key and BCFS has skyrocketed, doubling the amount of money they were receiving from the government last year. One can hope, that with the right amount of attention and pressure, we can prevent these and other organizations from being willing accomplices to the administration. One can hope, that we can discourage them from making this a normal part of their expected budget. One can hope, that we can prevent this from becoming business as usual.
I have been struggling with what is our religious responsibility in this from the start. Throughout time when cruelty was enacted upon the vulnerable, there were religious leaders who collaborated and benefitted, and religious leaders who resisted in both public and private ways. When does the time come when we must choose? Where is the line that cannot be crossed? When does the moment come when we must risk it all?
These are questions that many of us have the luxury of asking, because we are not amongst the directly impacted community. Yet, I have heard the voice of a mother who expressed her shock that we were not jumping in our cars and storming the gates of Tornillo.
I have struggled with trying to be professional, trying to be collegial, trying to be respectful. I have held my tongue while watching different religious leaders make different choices.
That mother’s outrage at our complacency strips my soul bare.
Reading representatives from the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention defending BCFS from critique, I know that Baptist Children and Family Services is not merely Baptist in name. They are claimed by the Southern Baptists, connected to the Southern Baptists. I wonder what my Baptists friends can do.
In seeking to examine our own practice, I have discussed with other pastors in Tucson how what we do with shelters here is different, and how to keep it that way. Most importantly, we do not hold children in confinement. We offer hospitality, welcome, food, clothing, and the freedom to leave at any time. There are not armed guards or fences, military helicopters or snipers on the roof as I saw on at least one occasion during my time at Tornillo. We work hard to communicate about consent and let guests know they are free to do as they choose and go where they choose. We are not funded by the government, we are supported by the church and you. We do not sign non-disclosure agreements, and as you see, have no problem using any knowledge we have to publicly critique the system. I believe those are important distinctions to maintain.
We must remain vigilant. The way things begin may not be how they end. You may start out setting up a few tents as a temporary shelter for separated kids, and end up running a tent city for thousands of unaccompanied minors.
How closely can the church cooperate with the government in serving immigrants before we have gone too far and become an accomplice to abuse? Where is the line? How much can we tolerate in order to maintain access to the vulnerable, without becoming desensitized to their suffering?
We must examine ourselves. Constantly. We must fight complacency.
About the Author:
Hannah Adair Bonner is an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church and is currently director of Frontera Wesley, a ministry of the United Methodist Church that welcomes students of all faith backgrounds at the University of Arizona and Pima Community College. Bonner also has an amazing activist history and is currently a member of the Free the Children Coalition. With her permission, we are sharing her recent investigative piece on the children interned in Tornillo, Texas. You can read the original post on her site and her other work here.