EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — The Border Patrol in El Paso is banking on a new modular building and a pool of private contractors to fix shortcomings that contributed to last year’s humanitarian migrant crisis.
The 98,000 square-foot Central Processing Center in Northeast El Paso can handle up to 1,040 migrants at a time. Several units inside this temporary holding facility were built for families and unaccompanied minors, whose sheer numbers last year overwhelmed the agency’s resources and brought about allegations of overcrowding and neglect.
“If we had this facility operational facility last year during the surge, we’d be in a much better position. It would have made things a lot better,” said El Paso Sector Acting Border Patrol Chief Chris Clem. “But now we got it and so we are prepared for today’s apprehensions and tomorrow’s as well.”
Border Patrol migrant apprehensions in the Southwest border have plummeted since May’s high of 132,856. The El Paso Sector, which took 8,563 into custody back then, is now detaining between 150 and 250 unauthorized migrants per day now. Still, Clem said illegal immigration patterns can change any time and the agency has to be prepared.
The Central Processing Center was supposed to start operations late last year, but “technical” issues delayed its construction, Clem said.
The Border Patrol on Tuesday opened the doors of the new facility to congressional staffers, members of the news media and some of the non-profits and groups that harshly criticized the agency last year. The allegations ranged from lack of food, clean clothes and even toothbrushes to older unaccompanied minors being left to care for younger children.
Agency supervisors showed off the new facility’s spacious living quarters, children’s areas with plenty of toys and mini-toilets and a warehouse full of clothing bins and boxed meals.
The intake area includes medical offices for screening the newcomers and a large interviewing area where contractors, Border Patrol agents and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) officers will get a family’s or an individual’s case file started. A separate temporary holding facility includes long benches, foam mats stacked along the walls and television sets so the migrants don’t grow bored.
Clem said having private contractors helping with paperwork will prevent having to pull Border Patrol agents from the field. Having HSI around will help detect family fraud cases more quickly.
“It’s going to be an efficient facility for our agents to perform their duties while providing adequate and appropriate care for those in our custody. That is something that we strive for. We have a border security mission to do. We continue to do our mission but we’re also going to take care of those in our custody,” Clem said.
He declined to say how many migrants would be housed there starting next week or whether any of them will be placed in the controversial HARP or PACR programs, which immigrant advocates are calling “express removal” mechanisms. He said the number of contractors will vary according to need. Right now, the number of migrants in temporary custody is “low,” though he couldn’t come up with a number.
Clem said the facility is meant for temporary housing only, while each migrant family or individual is routed to detention centers, Health and Human Services or criminal prosecution.
Mario Escalante, an acting supervisory Border Patrol agent, said last year’s migrant surge was a learning experience for the agency.
“We were not prepared for last year’s flow. We didn’t have the capacity to hold so many families and unaccompanied minors. That was totally new,” he said. “For us, it was a learning experience. We learned that we needed better installations like the one you see today. If we need something different in the future, we will adjust as we always do.”
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