DONNA — U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have unveiled the tent facility here that’s designed to accommodate asylum-seekers who, upon arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, are leaving federal facilities at maximum capacity, according to CBP.
A media tour of the “soft-sided” facility Thursday came weeks after CBP officials confirmed it would once again erect the shelter in Donna by the end of April to accommodate the increase in asylum-seekers turning themselves over to U.S. Border Patrol agents around ports of entry.
Carmen Qualia, acting executive agent for the U.S. Border Patrol, said the Donna shelter measures about 40,000 square feet, has the capacity for up to 500 people, and will hold “mostly” families and unaccompanied minors.
CBP officials said the facility will act as an extension of the central processing center in McAllen but not be used for processing migrants; only to house families and children.
They hope this extra capacity will alleviate the overflow at its nine other stations caused by the increase in large groups arriving at the border.
Qualia said the facility is climate controlled and features four pods measuring about 8,000 square feet each that will house the migrants; hundreds of foam mattresses; roughly 14 portable toilets, and 36 shower stations.
Though unlike the central processing center, also known as the Ursula facility, the Donna shelter will not have chain-link fencing. Instead, Qualia said 4-foot-high plastic partitions would be used.
CBP officials said those housed at the temporary facility will be held for anywhere from 48 to 72 hours.
In early April, CBP reported that Border Patrol agents had apprehended 92,607 people along the southwest border in March. More than 60% were made up of families and unaccompanied minors surrendering to agents.
Additionally, the agency reported of the more than 92,000 total apprehensions on the southwest border, 53,077 were families, and another 8,975 were unaccompanied minors, the majority of whom traveled from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
Through March fiscal year 2018, CBP reported an increase of family apprehensions of more than 370% year over year, and an increase of more than 14,000 (65% year over year) of unaccompanied minors.
CBP said they’ve also seen an increase in large groups of 100 or more people surrendering at once, with more than 100 instances recorded this year so far. This is an increase from the 13 large groups encountered last fiscal year, and only two groups of 100 or more people in all of fiscal year 2017, according to the website.
At the national level, President Donald Trump has repeatedly stated that the country cannot take anymore people arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, going so far as to advise Border Patrol agents to tell asylum-seekers that the country is full and to “go back.” The agency’s move to erect facilities like the ones in El Paso and Donna shows that it has no choice but to take in the more than 1,000 people they say surrender to them on a daily basis in the Rio Grande Valley sector.
In recent weeks, Department of Homeland Security and CBP officials have made their case for an overhaul of long-standing immigration policies that they say have led to this wave of Central American asylum-seekers.
During a trip to the Valley, acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan lauded a report from a panel, the Homeland Security Advisory Council, which concluded that with respect to families and minors in CBP custody, “there is a real crisis at our border.”
Among the key recommendations from the panel’s report, officially published April 16, was the establishment of “Regional Processing Centers.”
“Establish and staff 3 to 4 Regional Processing Centers along the border, scalable and with sufficient capacity to shelter all FMUs apprehended at the border and, among other things, provide safe and sanitary shelter, to include medical screening and care, credible fear examinations, vetting for identity and familial relationship, and evaluations for public health and safety, national security and flight risk,” the report stated in part.
Another recommendation from the panel suggests what many DHS officials have been advocating for since February — lawmakers should act immediately to address the increase in families and unaccompanied minors arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border with changes to immigration policies.
During the Border Security Expo in San Antonio at the end of March, then-acting DHS secretary Ronald D. Vitiello said an overhaul of current immigration policies was needed, including changing the Flores settlement agreement to allow for officials to hold families in detention longer.
The Flores settlement is an agreement put in place to protect children taken into custody at the southern border that was established more than 20 years ago as part of a class-action lawsuit first filed in 1985.
The settlement agreement stipulated among other things how long the government can detain immigrants, dictating a 20-day maximum detention period for immigrant families. It was reached between the federal government and child welfare and legal advocates who had demanded government officials address child welfare violations within the immigration detention system
Vitiello then, and McAleenan now, argue that if agents could detain the migrant families for a longer period of time, that would allow for them to get their due process, including taking care of any immigration status-related issues before being released.
The panel suggests a similar solution, with a focus on making the asylum process faster, and a fix to the aforementioned Flores settlement agreement.
Earlier in the day Thursday, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, along with U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, announced the HUMANE Act, a bill designed to combat the ongoing overcapacity issues by “updating existing laws to ensure family unity, while streamlining processing procedures,” and also make changes to the Flores settlement, according to a news release.
The HUMANE Act, would also “clarify that the Flores settlement agreement applies to unaccompanied children apprehended at the border,” and work to ban U.S. Health and Human Services officials from placing children in removal proceedings with their parents, according to the bill.
In addition, the bill will fund the hiring of more CBP officers; “modernize ports of entry to increase the capacity for CBP to process migrants seeking asylum while also facilitating legitimate trade and travel.”
Cuellar added that every person who arrives at the U.S.-Mexico border be treated humanely during immigration processes.
In recent days, Border Patrol officials confirmed that they would begin fingerprinting minors under 14 years old, saying it was necessary to combat concerns about the trafficking and exploitation of children by smugglers. This is an issue they believe will only be exacerbated as the number of families and children arriving at the border increases.
Despite claims of these abuses, CBP and Border Patrol officials have been hard-pressed to provide real examples of these instances of exploitation, stating that most of the investigations into those cases are ongoing.
On Wednesday, the White House asked Congress for $4.5 billion in emergency spending for border security, $3.3 billion to deal with the humanitarian crisis, and another $1.1 billion for border operations. This would be in addition to the $8.6 billion Trump asked for in his budget request in early March.
The tour also comes a day after news that another child has died while in U.S. government custody, making it the fifth such death since December and the third involving a child.
To address the deaths and overall issues facing their agencies, McAleenan said DHS was working to expand medical care, build temporary facilities, improve transportation and use resources across the federal government.
Qualia said the shelter could become operational and begin housing migrants as early as Thursday afternoon, or early Friday morning.