Tours Of Texas Migrant Detention Centers Reveal Decrease In Population

Originally published on July 17, 2019 7:51 am

After months of reports of migrants being crammed into dangerously overcrowded facilities, acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan got some good news during a visit Thursday to one of the Border Patrol's busiest sectors.

"On May 31, we had over 5,300 people in custody here in El Paso sector. On June 15, that number was reduced down to 3,000. And on July 1, we had just close to 550 in custody," Chris Clem, deputy chief of the El Paso Border Patrol sector, told McAleenan in a briefing.

Tours of two controversial Border Patrol facilities bore out those numbers. A small group of journalists was allowed to attend but could not take pictures or talk to any migrants.

At El Paso's Border Patrol Station 1 — which held 1,500 people in May and where Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said last week that detainees had been told to drink from a toilet — only 45 people were now in custody. A large tent set up in early May to house up to 500 people had more government officials than migrants on Thursday.

Officials continued to dispute Ocasio-Cortez's account during the tour, saying potable water is always available to migrants. Clem made a point of drinking from the water fountain atop a toilet in the cell Ocasio-Cortez visited.

At the Clint Border Patrol station 20 miles southeast of El Paso, 16 children were in custody on Thursday, down from 700 in May. These are children who arrived at the border without a parent or guardian. A group of attorneys and health professionals said in late June that many children were being neglected at Clint and housed without adequate food, water and sanitation. The Trump administration denied the allegations.

The allegations of mistreatment at Clint have angered people who work there. Lakeisha Muniz, an employee of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in New Jersey, volunteered to travel to Clint to help with the border humanitarian crisis. She said the media portrayal of the facility has been untrue.

"It's not what you guys are thinking or what people are putting out there. I have not even watched the news anymore because what I saw on the news is not the truth," Muniz said during the briefing for McAleenan, her voice brimming with frustration.

Chris Clem, the deputy chief of the El Paso Border Patrol Sector, gave a briefing on Thursday to acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan on current border conditions.
Robert Moore / NPR

"We are working hard together to make sure that everyone in there has food, has clothes, are brushing your teeth, taking showers. We're doing this," she said.

On Thursday, 15 boys were housed in two of the Clint facility's nine holding cells. Finding Dory played on video screens above each cell. The lone girl — a child of 2 or 3 — was held by a contract "monitor," child care professionals who began working at Clint about two weeks ago.

The monitors are responsible for some basic care and hygiene for the children, with four at a time working on an eight-hour shift.

The children who previously had been held at Clint were turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for their care while awaiting placement with sponsors, officials said.

"We are working hard to take care of kids in our custody," McAleenan said after touring the Clint facility.

Families and single adults who had been held at overcrowded Border Patrol and U.S. Customs and Border Protection facilities in recent weeks have gone on to one of three scenarios — released to the interior of the United States while their immigration cases are decided; turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be detained while their cases are heard; or sent back across the border under Migrant Protection Protocols, commonly called "remain in Mexico," to await a decision on their immigration claims.

Officials on Thursday didn't provide a breakdown on what happened to the almost 19,000 people held in CBP custody a few weeks ago. But the number of people sent back to Mexico has been increasing by 2,000 a week recently, with the total expected to surpass 20,000 by the end of this week, Mexican immigration officials said.

Thursday's briefing and tour offered reporters a rare glimpse inside Border Patrol holding facilities. Reporters weren't allowed to visit the facilities when holding cells were filled to standing-room only, as reported by the DHS inspector general.

DHS reported this week that the number of people taken into custody at the border in June was just over 104,000, down from 144,000 a month earlier but still more than double the numbers of the same month a year earlier.

In his briefing to McAleenan, Clem cited increased cooperation from Mexico, particularly in stopping large groups of Central American migrants from crossing. Mexico agreed to stepped-up border enforcement in early June to head off President Trump's threat to impose tariffs on Mexican goods.

In the El Paso sector, which includes far west Texas and all of New Mexico, 28 groups of 100 or more migrants were apprehended after crossing the border and surrendering in May — a total of 6,831 people. In June, El Paso sector agents encountered only four such groups, totaling 753 people.

Clem said Mexico has been able to prevent transportation hubs, used by transnational criminal organizations to move tens of thousands of people a month from Guatemala to the U.S.-Mexico border.

"Mexico was able to start putting their own personnel, their version of the National Guard, out there to interdict this and to stop this along the route. So we no longer have buses just showing up at Antelope Wells [in remote southwest New Mexico] at 2 o'clock in the morning and dropping people off," Clem said.

McAleenan agreed: "I think that's the No. 1 and most salient factor."

Robert Moore is a freelance journalist based in El Paso.

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All week, our co-host Noel King has been reporting from the U.S.-Mexico border. She has brought us the voices of many people caught up in the humanitarian crisis at the border. Among them, patrol agents who've been under heavy criticism for how they have handled the situation.

Carlos Favela is executive vice president of the El Paso Border Patrol Union.


CARLOS FAVELA: The biggest misconception is that Border Patrol agents are evil and they're mean-spirited. At various stations I've seen where they have collection boxes where they just come in and drop off, you know, small clothing that is for the kids or toys. So the kids can play with even plush toys. You know, I've seen them do this.

MARTIN: Favela was responding to reports that emerged last month of these chaotic, filthy scenes, particularly in Clint, Texas, where kids as young as 7 and 8 were reportedly going without basic necessities like blankets, beds or soap. Getting into these detention centers has been difficult for journalists. But freelance reporter Bob Moore toured that Clint facility in June, and he was invited back this week with Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan.

Bob Moore spoke with Noel about it.


BOB MOORE: Hi. Good to see you again.

KING: So we're seeing reports that ICE raids are going to start as soon as this weekend. I know that you asked Kevin McAleenan about this. What did he say?

MOORE: He wouldn't answer the question directly, citing operational security reasons. But he did say, basically, that ICE needs to be able to do its job and to protect the integrity of the immigration system.

KING: OK. You were taken on a tour of the facility in Clint, Texas. You also toured that facility a few weeks ago. What's changed?

MOORE: So just to give people a little lay of the land, too - Clint is a small farming village about 20 miles southeast of El Paso. Two weeks ago when I was there, they were holding 117 children. That was down from a peak of about 700. And it's important to understand that the listed capacity for the holding cells in that facility's 108. So in the weeks before I was there, they had been storing people in essentially converted warehouses - just wherever they could put them. But now, from 117 two weeks ago, there were 16 children there today...

KING: Only 16?

MOORE: Only 16, all were held inside, 15 boys and one girl. The only girl there, interestingly enough, was a little child who looked to be between the age of 2 and 3. The rest were boys - mostly teenage boys.

KING: Who was looking after the little girl?

MOORE: They have what are now called contract monitors there. These are, essentially, professional child care workers who are brought in to provide those services. They had just started there two weeks ago when we were out there. Before that you had had, essentially, federal agents taking care of children - including being responsible for their bathing, teeth-brushing and things like that.

KING: Do you get the sense that Customs and Border Protection is starting to change its facilities so that it's taking care of children and families as opposed to single men, for example, the way it was in the past?

MOORE: We're not seeing that. So it's important to note that the facilities we were at today are still facilities that were designed to hold single men. We don't have - at least on the CBP end of things - facilities that have been built specifically for the short-term holding of families. We're still putting families and children into what are essentially jail cells. We still have not constructed the infrastructure necessary to care for children and families.

KING: This week, the Department of Homeland Security reported that apprehension numbers at the border dropped significantly in the month of June - about 28%. Is the crisis at the border moving elsewhere?

MOORE: I think it's on pause, is the best way to put it right now, for a variety of factors. You now have the Mexican government that has taken a far more aggressive stance, both at its southern border and its northern border, in trying to keep people from crossing. You have the ramping up of migrant protection protocols where we now have more than 19,000 people waiting for asylum in the United States who've been made to go back to Mexico.

You also have warmer weather, which traditionally drives down migration rates. But I think the other piece of this that's happening is the smuggling organizations have sort of hit the pause button for right now, too, because they want to assess how all of this is playing out and how they can respond.

KING: You and I sat together in immigration court this week. We saw a lot of migrants who had been held in Mexico under the Remain in Mexico policy, most of them did not have lawyers. What are you going to be watching for over the next couple of months in terms of immigration court?

MOORE: I think it's important to understand that what we witnessed is going to look mild in comparison to what's about to come. And what we're going to see in El Paso, apparently, over the next few weeks is that the cases will be moved out of that courthouse we were in and moved to tents - probably at CBP facilities.

So they'll have a judge appearing by video screen with possibly hundreds of migrants in front of him for a rights advisal that probably will be conducted with a videotape rather than with a judge actually interacting with people. So as bizarre as what we saw was, it's going to get more bizarre moving forward.

KING: Journalist Bob Moore. Thank you so much.

MOORE: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.