Washington, D.C. November 21, 2019 – Today, Earthjustice, along with its partners Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, GreenLatinos, Hispanic Federation, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, National Hispanic Medical Association, and Southwest Environmental Center, is releasing hundreds of internal federal documents on the proposed construction plans for a migrant detention facility at Fort Bliss in Texas. These plans came as a result of President Donald Trump’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy, which instigated a need for additional capacity to house migrants and migrant families detained at the U.S.–Mexico border, which brought on the construction or planning of new detention centers.

These bases are known to be riddled with toxic hazards from past military operations, spills, storage of toxic chemicals, unexploded ordnances, and firing ranges. These searchable records include seven sets of FOIA productions and two key documents pertaining to the plans for construction at Fort Bliss. However, this is not the first time that the administration has pursued construction plans on contaminated sites. Goodfellow AIr Force Base was also under consideration for a planned detention facility.

Though the plans have reportedly stalled, Fort Bliss staff began coordinating with Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to select a possible site for a temporary detention camp for families or unaccompanied minors in early May 2018. By the end of June, initial plans were for HHS to house 1,000 unaccompanied minors with possible eventual “incremental build up” to 7,500 unaccompanied minors, to be ready by August 31, 2018, and for DHS to house 2,000 people in a family residential center, with eventual potential buildup to 4,000 beds, according to the newly released documents.

“These documents we’re releasing today reveal an alarming effort by the Army and DHS to rush plans to build a family detention center at Fort Bliss without taking the necessary steps to make sure the site was free of toxic hazards. Despite known pollution on the site, the Army planned to build a detention center there without completing a full investigation of the extent of contamination or verifying that the waste had been cleaned up,” said Earthjustice attorney Melissa Legge.  “This should signal to lawmakers, journalists, and the public how unscrupulous this administration can be while pursuing ill-conceived and dangerous anti-immigration policies.”

Our expert’s report notes that there were several problems with the project at Fort Bliss, including that the Army did not adequately investigate to determine what types of waste had been disposed of at the site, that the methods used for testing the soil samples were inadequate or never completed, and that samples taken after the supposed clean-up still had concerning levels of pollution. Additionally, our expert notes that illegal dumping on the site may continue to this day. As a result, there is now even greater uncertainty about the environmental hazards at the site and a greater need for thorough testing, analysis, and cleanup.

 “The Trump administration has proven again and again that it cannot be trusted with the health and safety of vulnerable migrant children,” said Laura M. Esquivel, director of National Advocacy for Hispanic Federation, the lead plaintiffs in the FOIA case. “We have witnessed the tremendous emotional and psychological cost borne by children housed in inhumane conditions. Adding intentional exposure to potentially toxic environments would make the Trump administration responsible for yet another cruel, misguided, and intentional action that would compound the irreparable damage to the physical and mental wellbeing of thousands of migrant children being separated from their parents at the border. The public has the right to know if these conditions exist, and the Trump administration must be held accountable for additional harms caused to those seeking refuge in this country.”

The government’s actions were probed by health, labor, civil rights, and environmental organizations, represented by Earthjustice, through Freedom of Information Act requests — as well as record request lawsuits — to reveal where it planned to detain migrants, then slated to be housed at Fort Bliss Army Base and Goodfellow Air Force Base in Texas, and to identify hazardous waste sites that could impact detention center sites. These documents are a result of that request.

Why does the Freedom of Information Act Matters in our Democracy?

Since 1967, the Freedom of Information Act has provided the public the right to request records from any federal agency. It is the bedrock transparency law that keeps reporters and the American people in the know about their government. The U.S. Supreme Court has found that the “basic purpose of FOIA is to ensure an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a democratic society, needed to check against corruption and to hold the governors accountable to the governed.”