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In nearly 100-degree heat, migrants still packed outside in camp at international bridge

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 6/12/2019 Lauren Villagran
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EL PASO, Texas – The photos showed migrant families fenced in under an international bridge, huddled against the cold, their children shawled in Mylar blankets. 

The images, which captured national attention in March, sparked criticism about the treatment of those seeking refuge and asylum in the country. Federal officials issued statements saying they would transfer the families to a "location with more space and shelter capability."

Three months later, a makeshift detention camp still occupies a parking lot at the foot of the northbound Paso del Norte international bridge in downtown El Paso. 

Mylar blankets were tied to a fence last week to jimmy a narrow shelter against the sun and rain. Trash clung to the chain link. A migrant washed clothes in a 5-gallon bucket one afternoon, as thunderheads threatened in the distance. On Sunday, three Cuban detainees shouted to an El Paso Times reporter that they had been held outside for a month.

A migrant shelter near the Paso del Norte bridge. © Mark Lambie / El Paso Times A migrant shelter near the Paso del Norte bridge.

"There is no justification for detaining people in this condition," said Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), who visited the site Friday. "The current situation is absolutely unacceptable for the migrants and for the agents who work for the federal government, as well."

Border Patrol denied an El Paso Times request that sought access to the detention camp. But Escobar described conditions as "terrible." Many of the migrants, a majority of whom are from Cuba, have been held outside for weeks, without access to cots, showers or basic hygiene, she said.

'In limbo': At US-Mexico border, migrants from Africa, Haiti wait to seek asylum

The parking lot-turned-detention camp is in plain view of border residents and tourists descending the international bridge from Mexico, who are now often waiting in long lines. Hundreds of customs officers have been pulled to Border Patrol to help with the influx.

During three visits to the bridge over seven days last week, the camp appeared consistently packed with migrants. Border Patrol installed camouflage netting over the area for shade late last week, as June temperatures headed toward triple digits.

The Office of the Inspector General slammed U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Homeland Security last month for conditions at the detention center. It found that although CBP management had been aware of the situation for months, the issues have not been resolved.

The report warned that hygiene was a serious concern and both migrants and agents were at risk.

Border Patrol apprehensions in May: Border Patrol apprehended record number of migrant families in May

'Nothing we can do about it'

El Paso Sector Border Patrol spokesman Ramiro Cordero said children are no longer being held in the camp and are instead being housed at a different detention area on the city's Northeast El Paso – a sprawling tent facility erected to process 500 people. 

He declined to provide a number of detainees but confirmed the overcrowding at the Paso del Norte bridge detention center, saying, "There is no way for us to say there’s not a lot of people there."

"If we’re apprehending over 1,000 a day, where do you put them?" he said. "The solution is not more agents or infrastructure or vehicles. You can build 10,000 tents but if people keep coming at the rate that they have, and the system is bottle-necked, there is nothing we can do about it."

The Border Patrol has maintained that it's up to Congress to change immigration law. 

Last week, under threat of tariffs from the Trump administration, the Mexican government agreed to step up enforcement to stem the flow of Central Americans and other migrants over its southern border and pledged to send 6,000 national guard troops.

Dylan Corbett, executive director of El Paso's Hope Border Institute, an immigrant advocacy group, blames CBP for repeatedly claiming there are no good solutions.

"It’s a challenging and stressful situation but the fact is, there is an entrenched culture of not respecting people’s human rights," Corbett said. "We need to change strategy. No. 1 is recognizing this is a humanitarian issue."

CBP spokesman Carlos Diaz, who is based in Washington, D.C., declined to answer questions regarding the overcrowding or the length of time migrants are being held by Border Patrol.

'Dangerous overcrowding': 900 migrants cram into Border Patrol center designed for 125 people

The agency's own standards require migrants not be held longer than 72 hours in Border Patrol custody before being transferred to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or released.

He cited DHS' response to the OIG findings contained in the report, in which DHS says it intends to open a "centralized processing center" in El Paso by November 2020 with capacity to hold 1,800 people. 

In its report, the OIG called that answer "partially responsive" and warned again that conditions "represent an immediate risk to the health and safety of detainees and DHS employees."

Migrant influx an 'ongoing crisis' in the Borderland

Border Patrol's El Paso Sector has seen the steepest increase in apprehensions between October and May this fiscal year, straining the agency's ability to respond. 

The number of family groups turning themselves into border agents in West Texas and New Mexico ballooned in the first eight months of the fiscal year to more than 104,000, from fewer than 5,000 in the same period a year ago. (Texas' Rio Grande Valley is still Border Patrol's busiest, with more than 135,000 migrant families apprehended since October.)

Apprehensions of unaccompanied migrant children surged in the El Paso Sector to more than 13,000 from about 3,000 in the prior-year period.

Many of the families and children aren't trying to sneak across the border; they are turning themselves into agents. Whether or not they claim "credible fear" of returning to their home country – a first step in the asylum process – many migrants come with stories of fleeing poverty, political turmoil and gang violence.

Thirty percent of migrants claimed "credible fear" in fiscal 2018 at ports of entry; just 14% of those apprehended by Border Patrol made the claim. 

Those arriving from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador or Cuba – "non-contiguous" countries whose borders don't touch the U.S. – cannot be turned back quickly or easily, since each nation must issue travel documents before their citizen is deported.

"This ongoing crisis has placed a tremendous strain on our limited resources and operational effectiveness," said acting CBP Commissioner John Sanders in a recent call with reporters.

This article originally appeared on El Paso Times: In nearly 100-degree heat, migrants still packed outside in camp at international bridge

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