Inside a Border Patrol migrant holding facility at 16 times its capacity

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) holding facility in Donna, Texas, is supposed to house no more than 250 migrants during the coronavirus pandemic. 

On Tuesday, the tent complex was holding more than 4,100 migrants, including 3,200 unaccompanied children, according to Oscar Escamilla, a Border Patrol official in the Rio Grande Valley who briefed reporters during the first press tour of a CBP facility under President Biden.

About 2,000 of the migrants had been held for more than three days, despite internal CBP policy dictating that all detainees should be transferred out of the agency’s custody within 72 hours. Thirty-nine unaccompanied children at the facility had been held for over 15 days, Escamilla said.

Pods designed to accommodate 32 children were acutely overcrowded, with one housing more than 600 unaccompanied teenagers. Children in one of the pods stood shoulder-to-shoulder, waiting to collect drink pouches and cheese crackers. Social distancing could not be enforced.

Children held at the Donna facility sleep on gym mats and are provided Mylar blankets for the cold. While the Donna tent complex has two recreational facilities, on Tuesday some of the area was being used to test unaccompanied children for COVID-19 and separate those who tested positive.

An alphabet rug surrounded by a purple and pink playpen is now where some of the facility’s youngest unaccompanied children sleep. On Tuesday, there were 27 young children in the playpen, including a four-month-old.

The severe overcrowding witnessed during Tuesday’s tour illustrates the U.S. government’s continued struggle to process and house a historic number of unaccompanied migrant children entering U.S. border custody. 

Last month, nearly 9,500 unaccompanied children arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border, a record high for any February in history. U.S. border officials are on track to take more than 16,000 unaccompanied minors into custody in March — an all-time monthly high.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which is charged with the long-term care of most unaccompanied children, has been scrambling to find enough beds for the minors arriving at the southern border. The department has a legal mandate to release unaccompanied children in its custody to sponsors, who are typically family members residing in the U.S.

HHS is on track to open nine emergency housing facilities for migrant children, repurposing convention centers, camps for oil workers and military bases with the objective of adding more than 16,000 beds by the end of April. The department oversees more than 170 shelters and foster care programs, but bed space in these facilities, which was reduced to allow for social distancing, has been extremely limited for weeks.

The lack of bed space in HHS-overseen facilities has fueled a record-high backlog of unaccompanied children stranded in Border Patrol facilities, which are unfit to house minors, especially for prolonged periods of time. As of Tuesday morning, Border Patrol was holding more than 5,100 unaccompanied minors.

“We’re not in the business of detention. We’re forced into the business because we can’t turn them over to anybody,” Escamilla, the Border Patrol official, said Tuesday, referring to lack of shelter bed space.

On Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas reiterated a statement he has made on several occasions: “a Border Patrol facility is no place for a child.”

“We have been working around the clock, in coordination with HHS, to quickly move unaccompanied children out of these crowded Border Patrol stations and into the care of HHS so they can be placed with family members or other sponsors,” Mayorkas said in the statement, adding later, “We are seeing progress, but it takes time.”

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