By Julio-Cesar Chavez
EL PASO, Texas (Reuters) - The U.S. government has moved out all the migrant teens who were living in a tent city in the Texas desert and is set to close it down, according to the organization running the facility, after the shelter became a controversial symbol of President Donald Trump's crackdown on illegal immigration.
BCFS, a San Antonio-based nonprofit running the temporary shelter for the U.S. government, said on Friday that "there are no more children in Tornillo," but did not say if they had all been released to sponsors or had been moved to other facilities.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had said there were more than 850 migrants being held there as recently as Jan. 6 but did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the releases.
The shelter opened on June 14 to handle the ballooning number of unaccompanied children being kept in detention. Immigration advocates raised concerns about how long minors were being held in the makeshift tents and some protestors had set up camp near the facility.
At its peak in December the sprawling field of beige coloured tents housed 2,800 teenagers, mostly from Central America, who crossed the border alone.
Trump has called the increasing number of children and families crossing into the United States a humanitarian crisis. This and his assertion that immigrants and drugs are streaming across the southern border have fuelled his demand for a border wall, despite statistics that show illegal crossings are at a 20-year low and that many drug shipments are likely are smuggled through legal ports of entry.
On Thursday Trump travelled to Texas to press his case for the wall, even as the government remained partly shut down in a dispute with Democrats over funding for it. [L1N1ZA0KJ]
The government is legally limited in how long it can detain immigrant minors who cross the border but a policy to increase vetting of potential sponsors has lead to long delays in processing their cases, leaving some children languishing in government care for months.
As of Jan. 6 there were still approximately 11,400 unaccompanied children in HHS custody across the country, the government said.
Once minors are released, they can pursue their immigration cases while living in the United States, with many seeking to apply for asylum.
"Our goal is to close Tornillo as quickly but as safely as possible," Victoria Palmer, an HHS spokeswoman, said earlier this week.
Protesters who have been monitoring the camp said they have seen a steady outflow of infrastructure like tents. BCFS confirmed to Reuters it was working to demobilize the facility and removing shelter trailers and tents as more children leave Tornillo.
"This tent city should never have stood in the first place but it is welcome news that it will be gone," tweeted Will Hurd, a Republican U.S. congressman from Texas.
(Additional reporting by Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Editing by Mica Rosenberg and Frances Kerry)