Stopping Toxic Cages

An unprecedented collection of government documents sheds light on the Trump administration’s process to create migrant detention centers.

A woman who identified herself as Jennifer sits with her son Jaydan at the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in McAllen, Texas.
A woman who identified herself as Jennifer sits with her son Jaydan at the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in McAllen, Tex., in 2018. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

President Donald Trump’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy instigated a need for additional capacity to house migrants and migrant families detained at the U.S.–Mexico border. This brought on the construction or planning of new detention centers.

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 and Goodfellow Air Force Base in Texas, and to identify hazardous waste sites that impact the potential 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.

Earthjustice is making the documents regarding Fort Bliss available to the public.

The documents 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 ensure the site was free of toxic hazards. Our expert analyzed the documents and issued a report noting 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. Of particular concern were soil samples that tested high for cancer-causing chemicals including arsenic and volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds such as benzo[a]pyrene.

The documents also reveal 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.

This is not the first time that the administration has pursued construction plans for detention centers on contaminated sites. Goodfellow Air Force Base was also under consideration for a planned detention camp for children, and our February 2019 Toxic Cages report discussed the toxic waste and contaminated soils at that proposed detention site.

Fort Bliss Documents

Creation of Migrant Detention Center at Fort Bliss

Hundreds of documents were obtained by Earthjustice and our clients through Freedom of Information Act Requests.

Search and read the documents on DocumentCloud. (Tips for search.) The set includes the seven FOIA productions, in addition to two key expert documents.

Additional resources for accessing the documents:

Fort Bliss Documents

Expert Report

Analysis of the emails and documents, the environmental background of Fort Bliss, descriptions of contamination and health concerns, recommendations, and more.

The expert report, Fort Bliss Waste Sites and Potential Human Health Impacts at Proposed Migrant Detention Center, reviews documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests to the U.S. Army, including emails from the U.S. Army and Department of Homeland Security.

Our expert’s report notes:

The Army did not adequately investigate to determine what types of waste had been disposed of at the site and what contamination had occurred.

The Army investigators relied on an insufficient number of subsurface samples and visual inspection (which would not have revealed buried waste and waste that had been covered by blowing soil).

Soil samples taken after the cleanup was supposedly completed have alarming levels of arsenic, petroleum hydrocarbons, benzene, and benzo[a]pyrene, indicating that cleanup efforts were not adequate to remove dangerous pollution from the site.

Arsenic, a carcinogen, was reported at 19 times the cancer screening level for residential soil.

Total petroleum hydrocarbons were reported at 41 times the screening level for inhalation by a child.

Benzene, a VOC, was only measured in one sample, although the sampling method used was inappropriate to capture benzene. Benzene in the soil is a major public health threat to children.

Benzo[a]pyrene was reported at nearly 500 times the U.S. EPA screening level for cancer risk from exposure to residential soil.

Our expert was also concerned that the methods used for testing the samples were inadequate.

For example, although volatile organic compounds (VOCs) were detected in some samples, Fort Bliss staff used a sampling method that would lead to an underreporting of any VOCs present in the soil.

Some important tests were never conducted.

For example, no testing for pesticides or herbicides on the site were ever conducted, despite evidence of dumped landscaping materials which indicate that pesticides might be present on those materials.

No samples were ever tested for dioxins and furans.

Only one sample was ever tested for metals and PCBs

Despite these concerning results, as far as we know, no follow-up testing was conducted at Rubble Dump Site after verification samples were taken in 2000.


What We Know About The Migrant Detention Center Site Selection Process at Fort Bliss

Analysis by Earthjustice legal experts is based on documents received in response to our Freedom of Information Act request.

In early May 2018, Fort Bliss staff began coordinating with DHS and HHS to select a possible site for a temporary detention camp for families or unaccompanied minors.

By the end of June, Email 44 indicates 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 Aug. 31, 2018, and for DHS to house 2,000 people in a family residential center, with eventual potential buildup to 4,000 beds.

Email 71 discusses high-level coordination between DOD and DHS/HHS about these camps.

Fort Bliss, DHS, and HHS initially selected Parcel 1, near the intersection of Liberty Expressway and Purple Heart Memorial Highway. See Email 10. But they decided not to use that site because of the substantial costs of grading the site in preparation for construction, as it had a steep slope. Email 44 explains their rationale for the change.

At some point, HHS dropped out of planning discussions because it had selected Goodfellow AFB as their preferred location for a camp for unaccompanied minors. See Email 71.

DHS then selected Parcel 2 as the site for the detention camps, and Parcel 2 was the chosen site at least up until the date of our FOIA request in August 2018. (We don’t know what happened after the date of our FOIA request.)

  • This site is near Site Monitor, a long disused radio receiver station. Site Monitor had some existing structures of both temporary and permanent construction, some of which Fort Bliss staff had already decided to tear down. See Email 21.
  • Email 6 describes the condition of existing buildings using the military’s Q and F rating system for evaluating structures. (See Explanation of Q and F Ratings, for definitions.)
  • Fort Bliss offered to lease Site Monitor to DHS for use for administrative headquarters and medical facilities, which DHS could occupy after the slated demolition took place. See Email 22. DHS would construct tent-type housing for families on 75 acres immediately to the west of Site Monitor. Id.
  • Email 26 provides further detail about the type of construction anticipated and division of labor between DHS and Fort Bliss. That email discusses a draft memorandum of agreement. The Army produced a draft memorandum in its 7th production, but it was so redacted that it did not provide any new information.
  • Email 34 also provides important details about the proposed plans for the camp, including cost estimates. Although Fort Bliss staff had little input from DHS when they calculated these costs, the calculations are based on the cost of housing families at the family residential center (immigration detention center) in Dilley, TX.

As part of preparing Parcel 2, Directorate of Public Works staff circulated a spreadsheet with a number of questions about the environmental attributes of the site and possible hazards there. They called these questions “LOGCAP RFIs.” This spreadsheet is where Fort Bliss staff first discussed the Rubble Dump site as an environmental hazard that might affect Parcel 2. They observed continued illegal dumping on the site, as well as potential drinking water contamination.

  • We also know Parcel 2 was attractive to Fort Bliss staff in part because they believed that Parcel 2 was adequately studied in a 2012 NEPA environmental analysis and that they would not have to repeat such an analysis if the site was chosen. See Email 22 and Email 71. Instead, they could sign a Record of Environmental Consideration saying that the 2012 EA covered this decision. See 32 C.F.R. § 651.19, which permits the Army to move forward with an action covered by existing or previous NEPA documents by preparing a short signed statement with project documentation.
  • In the course of Freedom of Information Act litigation against the Army, Army staff stated that they would rely on a 2012 Environmental Assessment for a potential land sale and transfer of these parcels, Environmental Assessment for the Sale, Development, and Exchange of Army-Owned Land, Fort Bliss, Texas. Although this EA discusses the condition of the parcels later considered for the DHS/HHS camps, it does not consider any uses related to immigration detention, let alone temporary tent construction for detaining minors.
  • We also believe that Fort Bliss may seek to rely on a different 2012 EA, Environmental Assessment U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement El Paso City Administrative Facility Fort Bliss, Texas, for the NEPA analysis for this proposed child detention center. However, this EA only discusses a proposal to house 500 adult ICE staff on a site at Fort Bliss neighboring, but south of, Parcel 2, so it is difficult to see how this analysis could adequately cover the proposal to house as many as 7,500 migrants, many of them children.
  • Fort Bliss general counsel said that the REC would only take seven days to complete once an executive order was issued, which would be an extremely fast track for NEPA analysis if that is the process they did indeed follow. See Email 72.

One of the key issues with Parcel 2 is contamination from illegal dumping. Fort Bliss included the Rubble Dump Site near Parcel 2 in the base cleanup plan and the site cleanup has technically been completed, nearly 20 years ago.

Illegal dumping on the site continues to this day. Although Fort Bliss built a fence around the site as part of its cleanup efforts, this fence has failed to prevent new illegal dumping. Fort Bliss staff noted both new trash (piles of tires, etc.) and trespassers during their site inspections in summer 2018. See Email 51.

  • 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 before any detention facilities are built nearby.

The camps would likely use generator power, which may cause harmful air pollution at the site. See Email 67.


Fort Bliss Detention Center Proposal

The area currently proposed for the housing, Parcel 2, contains a Resource Conservation and Recovery Act contaminated sites: an illegal dump and spill site known as the Rubble Dump and Spill Site or simply the Rubble Dump Site. The most recent emails from the FOIA request indicate that the Army plans to build detention center housing only 2,000 feet from this illegal dump. However, the detention center location was not finalized as of the FOIA request, and the final location of the detention center may include the contaminated dump and spill site.

Map by Flora Champenois / Earthjustice

Sources of map polygons:

Potential Site (Proposed): Email 23 - EA_Land Exchange_Parcel_Dimensions

Parcel 1 - Previously Considered: Email 44 - Parcels 1, 2, 3

Parcel 2 - Currently Selected: Email 44 - Parcels 1, 2, 3Email 23 - EA_Land Exchange_Parcel_Dimensions

Parcel 3: Email 44 - Parcels 1, 2, 3Email 23 - EA_Land Exchange_Parcel_Dimensions

Parcel 1 Site - Previously Considered: OLD Email 10 - DHHS Site Jun2018

Land Sale Boundary From 2012 Environmental Assessment: Email 23 - EA_Land Exchange_Parcel_Dimensions

Site Monitor: Email 23 - EA_Land Exchange_Parcel_Dimensions

Rubber Dump Spill Site (2012 - Wider Estimate): Land_Sale_FINAL_FNSI_EA_17Dec12_Rubble Dump Site

Rubble Dump Spill Site: 3687229 - RCRA_Rubble Dump Site - Figure 2 (Land Use Map)

Our Clients

Earthjustice represents Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, GreenLatinos, Hispanic Federation, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, National Hispanic Medical Association, and Southwest Environmental Center.

Earthjustice and our clients have sought documents that can shed light on the government’s publicly announced plans to build migrant detention centers in Goodfellow and Fort Bliss, both in Texas. The government refused to comply with FOIA requests, and a lawsuit was filed against the government for its failure to release documents concerning Fort Bliss. Learn more.

Media Inquiries: Alejandro Dávila Fragoso, Communications Strategist,

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