Commentary: Health, labor and environmental organizations represented by Earthjustice are asking the government via expedited records request to reveal where exactly it plans to detain migrant families slated to be housed in Texas military bases known to have toxic hazards. Filed today, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request comes as the Trump administration is rushing to build migrant detention centers in Fort Bliss in El Paso, and Goodfellow Air Force Bases in San Angelo.
Besides separating children from parents, Trump’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy created a need for additional capacity to house migrant families detained at the border. The military is providing the extra space. But Fort Bliss is riddled with toxic radiological contaminants and hazardous chemicals including heavy metals and volatile organic compounds from its munitions burial and burning, unexploded ordnance and landfills.
Fort Bliss, in particular, has Superfund sites, which are polluted locations requiring a long-term response to clean up hazardous material contamination. At Goodfellow Air Force Base, the area where tents will be constructed is directly over a former firing range and adjacent to a closed but uncapped landfill. Exposure to toxic chemicals from these sites can cause cancer, neurological damage, developmental harm, and many other diseases. The bases could also have remnants of polyfluorinated compounds called PFAS stemming from the foams used to douse fires during training.
“Detaining migrant families with children in hastily constructed tents on military bases is ill-conceived and dangerous,” said Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans. “Families could be exposed to radiation, toxic chemicals, unexploded munitions, polluted drinking water and multiple other health hazards. Migrants fleeing desperate conditions do not belong in cages, let alone toxic ones.”
Water testing conducted in 2017 showed certain sites in Fort Bliss had chromium and radiological contaminants. Chromium has been associated with increased risk of respiratory system cancers. Multiple Superfund sites at the base are suspected to contain medical waste, lead-acid batteries, unexploded ordnance, discarded military munitions, and munitions constituents.
“The Trump administration can’t be trusted, especially after it separated families, kept toddlers in inhumane conditions, and then failed to meet court-imposed deadlines to reunite children with parents,” said Rosemary Martinez, Sin Fronteras Organizing Project president. “My father, a veteran, passed away in 2010 because of Agent Orange exposure and other toxic chemicals while stationed at Fort Bliss. What’s happening in our borders is a violation of human rights and now innocent children will continue to pay for the government’s hatred-driven ineptitude.”
The FOIA also seeks data about ten different polluted sites on the two bases that include former nuclear weapons storage areas, firing ranges, open burning, detonation areas and dumping sites. Furthermore, groups wish to know which other bases besides Fort Bliss and Goodfellow Air Force Base may be turned into migrant detention centers.
“The public has a right to know what pollutants are in the base and where will innocent children be detained,” said David Baake, Southwest Environmental Center attorney. “The surrounding community steadfastly opposes the Family Detention Policy, and should not be forced to contribute to suffering by hosting new detention centers in their backyard.”
“This administration first separated migrant families at the border and detained immigrant children in inhumane conditions,” said Laura M. Esquivel Hispanic Federation director of National Advocacy. “Now it could very well detain families together in toxic military sites like Fort Bliss. We will not let this happen.”
“It is horrifying that the few reunited Latino families are being exposed to radioactivity from unexploded ordnance, munitions and years of gunfire training,” said Elena Rios, MD, President & CEO of the National Hispanic Medical Association. “In Fort Bliss, there are still present toxins from past landfills — which means detained immigrant families with children could be forcibly exposed to toxicity linked to cancer and development defects.”
“Our nation needs investment in infrastructure and schools, it does not need detention centers aimed at breaking families apart. Constructing these buildings with the purpose of holding immigrants captive and at the same time endangering their health is inexcusable, and what is more, it is a bigoted action geared at targeting our community,” said Hector Sanchez from the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement. “We will not stand by as this administration divides our families, and hurts our communities. We will fight against these atrocities.”
“It’s shocking but unfortunately par for the course that this administration might be on the brink of detaining families with children next to toxic dumping sites and radioactive firing ranges,” said Mark Magaña, President & CEO of GreenLatinos.”But this must not stand. Risking poisoning detained families and children after the Trump administration ripped families apart is beyond the pale.”
The FOIA was filed on behalf of Hispanic Federation, National Hispanic Medical Association, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, Southwest Environmental Center, GreenLatinos and Alianza Nacional de Campesinas.