By Julio-Cesar Chavez
EL PASO, Texas (Reuters) - A tent city in Texas for migrant teens will close, the U.S. government said on Friday, and the children held in what had become a controversial symbol of President Donald Trump's migration policy will be transferred to sponsors or other shelters.
The shelter in Tornillo, Texas opened in June to house migrant children, many of whom were Central Americans who crossed the border alone. Immigration advocates raised concerns about how long the minors were staying in the tents and some protesters had set up camp near the facility.
"As of this weekend, the last group of unaccompanied alien children will have been transferred or discharged" and the shelter was on a "path toward closure," said Lynn Johnson, Assistant Secretary of the Administration for Children and Families (ACF).
Johnson said the majority of the children were released to sponsors, usually family members, in the United States, while some were transferred to other shelters.
BCFS, the San Antonio-based nonprofit running the temporary shelter for the U.S. government, said earlier on Friday that "there are no more children in Tornillo."
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which oversees the ACF, had said there were more than 850 migrants being held in Tornillo as recently as Jan. 6.
At its peak in December the sprawling field of beige-colored tents in the Texan desert near the border housed 2,800 teenagers, according to BCFS.
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 fueled 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 smuggled through legal ports of entry.
On Thursday Trump traveled to Texas to press his case for the wall, as the government remained partly shut down in a dispute with Democrats over funding for it.
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 led 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. BCFS confirmed to Reuters it was working to demobilize the facility and removing shelter trailers and tents.
"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.
(Reporting by Julio-Cesar Chavez, additional reporting by Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Editing by Mica Rosenberg, Frances Kerry and Rosalba O'Brien)