Inside new Border Patrol tent facility for migrants in Texas

Inside new Border Patrol tent facility for migrants in Texas
Copyright 2019 CNN
New Border Patrol tent facility for migrants opens in Tornillo, Texas.

At the end of last year, nearly 3,000 children were being housed in rows of small brown tents on this site just a few yards from the southwest border with Mexico. The controversial temporary shelter for unaccompanied minors, which closed in January, was at the center of several protests. And the controversy wasn’t confined to that one facility.

Following historically high numbers of border crossings in the spring, immigration officials have faced blistering criticism for squalid conditions at overcrowded facilities. For months, journalists sought access to observe the conditions of detainees for themselves, which was rarely granted.

This week, journalists were allowed to go into a new facility in the vicinity of where children were once held. It’s one of six built to help accommodate the influx of migrants arriving to the US-Mexico border this year.

The 197,000-square-foot facility in the West Texas desert, which opened this week, has separate giant white tent buildings for single adult female and male detainees, which are hundreds of meters apart from one another.

CNN and other media outlets visited the facility in Tornillo on Thursday. Unlike most previous tours of detention facilities, reporters were allowed to film inside. But the agency imposed strict restrictions on journalists, not allowing the filming of detainee’s faces and forbidding journalists from interviewing them.

The facility has the capacity to hold over 2,000 detainees, but when CNN went inside, there were only four women and about 20 men there. The migrants were from several countries including Guatemala, El Salvador and Brazil.

A handful of women and over a dozen men were sitting quietly on thin silver mats inside chain link pens.

Some detainees were wearing their own clothes, while others wore blue sweatshirts with gray sweatpants provided by Border Patrol.

The detainees were mostly quiet and talked among themselves. They were using fabric blankets, not the Mylar blankets that have been seen in other detention centers.

A mix of National Guard and Border Patrol agents were watching the migrants from wooden-raised decks between the pens and monitoring surveillance footage from separate rooms.

There were water bottles and chips in every room, as well as portable toilets equipped with large holes at the top and bottom of the doors so officers can see detainees at all times.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, who was visiting the new facility, said that new temporary facilities like this one would help them prevent severe overcrowding. He also said that the number of arrests at the border, a measure of illegal crossings, has dipped in recent weeks.

The drop in arrests, along with faster transfers of migrants out of Border Patrol custody, have also helped reduce crowding that at one point resulted in standing-room only conditions in some locations.

There were nearly 72,000 arrests made in July along the southern border, down about 24% from 94,908 in June, according to the latest Border Patrol data.

At the peak in June, Border Patrol had nearly 20,000 people in custody, according to McAleenan. That has been reduced to about 4,500, which includes 150 unaccompanied children along the Southern border, he said.

Children are moving through the process in less than 24 hours and single adults are under the 72 hours mark, according to McAleenan. That’s way down from previous months, when migrants were spending weeks in custody at the border in jail-like stations before being either transferred to other federal government agencies for longer term detention or released.

“We have a dramatically improved situation,” McAleenan said Thursday.

Congress passed a $4.6 billion emergency border funding bill at the end of June after months of pleading from Department of Homeland Security, which oversees Border Patrol and border facilities.

McAleenan said DHS has asked Congress for additional emergency supplemental funding to build a longer term facility for single adults.

“Congress did give us the funding and that’s why we built this temporary facility for single adults, because if we have another surge we are going to need this capacity to temporarily house single adults,” he said. “We needed this funding, we needed to provide additional capacity to manage this flow.”

The facility was built in about 45 days. It has indoor shower facilities that are separate for female and male detainees. Gloria Chavez, interim El Paso Border Patrol sector chief, said detainees are required to log their belongings in plastic bags that are tagged with their names. After they are processed, detainees can place their clothes in a bag and request them to be washed at an in-site laundry facility.

Detainees have access to a phone that’s installed between the chain link pens and make calls as they need to, Chavez said.

And while DHS has funding for the next four months, according to McAleenan, he says the situation still requires attention and he’ll continue to engage with Congress.

“We remain very concerned that we can see significant increases again, over 2,000 (people) a day crossing the border,” he said.