TORNILLO, Texas (Border Report) — Several men sit on blue plastic chairs or lie atop thin mattresses over a concrete floor behind a chain-link fence enclosure. Some of them pull their shirts halfway up their faces and others turn away as a score of Border Patrol agents, National Guard troops and reporters suddenly gather around the enclosure.
The 28 male migrants in this pen and four females in a separate section comprise the first group of detainees at the new Border Patrol holding facility in Tornillo, which opened on Tuesday.
The new “soft-sided” structure — most walls are canvas — can hold 2,500 adult detainees and is one of the largest immigration holding facilities on the U.S.-Mexico border. It was conceived to alleviate the severe overcrowding that led to allegations of mistreatment, lack of basic supplies and medical care barely two months ago.
But the migrant surge that overran existing U.S. detention facilities has been cut nearly in half after the Trump administration threatened to impose up to a 25 percent tariff on imports from Mexico, and that country in mid-June deployed soldiers to the Guatemalan border and aggressively enforced its immigration laws. Recent diplomatic efforts have also gotten Guatemala on board, as evidenced by recent joint operations with the United States targeting human traffickers and disrupting known smuggling routes.
Today, only a few thousand migrants are housed in Border Patrol facilities border wide and fewer than 150 unaccompanied minors remain. Why then, build such a large complex to hold migrants in this town 40 minutes east of El Paso, Texas?
“Although our apprehensions have gone down 43 percent (since May) and we have cooperation with Mexico and all the Northern Triangle nations, make no mistake: We are still at crisis levels,” said acting Customs and Border Protection commissioner Mark Morgan. “Our daily apprehensions are hovering between 2,300 and 2,500 a day. Our threshold for crisis levels is 1,000 a day, so we are still beyond a crisis level.”
Morgan and Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan toured the new Tornillo facility on Thursday, where food supplies, bottled water, linens and flip-flops in transparent plastic bags sit in stacks. Both officials said conditions at detention centers are much more manageable with fewer migrants coming across the border to seek U.S. asylum. But they warned a new migrant surge could occur any time unless Congress closes asylum law loopholes.
“The first week of June we were at the peak of this crisis, we averaged over 5,000 migrants crossing unlawfully every day and were holding almost 20,000 in our (Border Patrol) stations,” McAleenan said.
He displayed a chart detailing daily detentions for the past few months, peaking at nearly 20,000 detainees at the start of June, then dropping to 5,055 on Aug. 7.
Things changed when Mexico got on board and the U.S. began implementing the Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP) program that makes asylum seekers wait out their cases in Mexico, the DHS officials said.
“With MPP, we have over 32,000 individuals waiting in Mexico. … If it wasn’t for Mexico and their work with us, those 32,000 could be in our custody and we would be back in the original crisis levels,” Morgan said.
Fewer detainees, more resources
McAleenan focused on the improvements at the holding facilities in terms of migrant care. “With this significantly enhanced capacity, we have alleviated the overcrowding and we have a much improved situation for care and custody of migrants during their temporary stay,” the Acting Secretary said. “Back (in June) we had people in custody at the border for much longer than we’re comfortable with. We have a mandate not to hold unaccompanied minors longer than 72 hours …. now we’re moving minors to their processes in 24 hours, families in 48 hours and we strive to get single adults moving under the 72-hour mark.”
Gloria Chavez, acting Chief Border Patrol Agent in the El Paso Sector, said migrants won’t lack medical care or supplies. On Thursday, she showed reporters the holding facilities in Tornillo, including the showers. In June, a group of attorneys said detainees were being denied permission to shower, sometimes for weeks at a time. “If they want to shower when they come in or at any time, all they have to do is ask,” she said.
DHS officials said migrants have at least two opportunities to receive medical screenings: when they are detained and transported to a Border Patrol station, and when they are brought to holding facilities like the one at Tornillo.
Chavez said the detainees are given three meals a day and an “abundance of snacks” is available to them if they ask. One frequent complaint of detainees and their advocates at the peak of the humanitarian crisis in May and June was that the migrants were hardly fed.
“I want to emphasize that overcrowding concerns and concerns about conditions in our facilities have been alleviated by the Border Supplemental Bill (approved by Congress last month) and by our international engagement efforts,” Morgan said. “All this is great stuff that is going on, but we are still at a crisis level in (migrant) apprehensions. This is not a durable, sustainable solution. We still need Congress to act.”
Chavez echoed the part about fears that another migrant surge could happen any time. “The crisis is not over and every day I worry that we are going to go right back to it next week or tomorrow. But that’s okay because now we are better prepared with a facility of this size,” she said.