EL PASO, Texas – A year after asylum-seekers and other migrants overwhelmed U.S. immigration authorities at the southern border, the Border Patrol is opening a processing facility in Texas that officials say could help it better care for detainees following outcry last year over young children and adults held in squalid, crowded conditions.
“This facility is much better for us, (and) most importantly, it's going to provide the adequate care and necessities for those that are in our custody,” said Chris Clem, deputy chief patrol agent for the El Paso Sector, which covers southern New Mexico and West Texas.
The agency said it plans to open the 1,040-person facility for families as early as this weekend. It gave journalists a tour Tuesday of the solid wall modular buildings that feature play areas for children, showers, laundry facilities, and other basic necessities not always available in remote Border Patrol holding centers.
Critics say the move doesn't solve a lack of oversight of such facilities and raises confusion about why President Donald Trump's administration is expanding detention space as it pushes policies to reduce asylum claims.
They say little oversight allowed unprepared Border Patrol officials to erect tents around a parking lot in El Paso last spring as it faced a surge of migrants, who were crammed in and had little protection from the desert's swings from hot to cold. The local Border Patrol chief at the time was reassigned to Detroit following widespread criticism of the conditions.
The new facility meant for short-term housing is set to open about six months after the influx of migrants slowed. It comes as the government has virtually prohibitedpeoplefrom seeking asylum by sending them to Guatemala to seek protection there, making people wait in Mexico for U.S. court hearings and doing initial asylum screenings very quickly and with almost no opportunity to consult attorneys.
Critics say the expanded space doesn't address fundamental problems with Customs and Border Protection, the Border Patrol's parent agency.
“Absent robust oversight and accountability measures, including meaningful access to counsel and health care professionals, CBP facilities, no matter their label, will remain black holes ripe for abusive conditions,” said Shaw Drake, El Paso-based policy counsel for the Border Rights Center of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.
In May, Border Patrol agents in El Paso were processing large groups of migrants, including one with over 1,000 people, mostly without additional federal resources. Such large groups became infrequent by the fall.
Agents at the new facility will have help from civilians who have been recently hired to care for migrant families, including handing out snacks, doing medical screenings and watching children.
Child “pods” shown to reporters during the tour featured play areas, toys and TVs for cartoons. While the facility is not yet finished, agents said a playground would be built so children could go outside.
Officials touted the amenities after the Border Patrol last year quietly housed hundreds of children in adult cells and a converted garage at a station in Clint, just south of El Paso. By June, children, including teen mothers with babies, waited up to 27 days to be transferred to the care of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for migrant children. It was later revealed that the agency had hundreds of open beds at the time.
The kids were kept in squalid conditions only revealed because of a visit by lawyers who oversee how children are detained. Children as young as 2 were put in the cells without direct adult supervision. Migrant girls as young as 10 reported that agents told them to watch younger children.
Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Texas Democrat who led congressional delegations along the border last year, including to detention centers in El Paso and Clint, said it's confusing that the government is spending money on more detention centers when it's trying to reduce asylum claims. She hopes the November election or the courts end those policies.
“The only justification I can see for investment in these sites is that if and when that day arrives, at least we’ll be ready,” she said.
A 500-person facility for longer-term housing for child migrants also is opening as early as this spring in El Paso. It will be overseen by the contractor Caliburn International after receiving a grant from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, according to a Health and Human Services spokesman Mark Weber.
This story has been corrected to show that Health and Human Services spokesman Mark Weber's name was misspelled.