EL PASO, Texas—Hundreds of migrants are being held for days in an emerging tent city at a Border Patrol station in a preview of what the Trump administration is reportedly considering to absorb a surge on the border.
Five U.S. Army tents meant for battlefield hospitals have been repurposed to hold men, women, and children, including infants. Two of the tents were erected over the past week, expanding the facility’s capacity by several hundred people. The tents are tightly surrounded by fences topped with barbed wire, leaving virtually no space for people to roam outside. Inside the tents, according to a congresswoman who was granted access, hundreds languish in fetid conditions.
Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-CA) visited the facility in early April with a congressional delegation.
“One woman had a baby, a five-month-old baby and said she’d been there for five days. The baby had filthy clothes,” Barragán said. “The situation is unhealthy. People are in a confined space, they’re not getting showers, their clothes are dirty, babies are not getting Pampers like they should be. These ladies were crying and telling us their stories and it was just heartbreaking.”
Barragán was banned from taking photos of migrants, but she described a desperate scene inside. The tents contained no cots and migrants slept on a temporary floor that covered the asphalt parking lot beneath, with babies sometimes sleeping on their parents’ legs to avoid the hard floor.
“We were stepping over people to walk around in the tent,” she said. “And the food is… We’re talking ramen and Cup of Noodles, Capri Suns and juice boxes, maybe a frozen burrito if you’re lucky.
“I was really taken aback by the smell. I was in there for five minutes and I just became nauseous, I hate to say it. It’s just too many people for that size area and people hadn’t had a shower for many days. Border Patrol told us it was their goal to get people a shower every three days, but the mother I spoke to there hadn’t had one and she’d been there for five.”
The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to detailed questions regarding conditions and capacity in the tents.
Reporters are forbidden from the facility, leaving The Daily Beast to observe the operation through a telephoto lens from nearly a quarter-mile away.
Outside the tents last week, buses dropped off as many as 60 migrants at a time. After receiving mylar blankets and paperwork, the migrants were led by agents into the tents, which are approximately 75 feet long and 20 feet wide. The tents have with a cot capacity of 148 people, according to the Army. Some are tattered, with sections of fabric flapping in the wind.
The practice of keeping migrants in tents appears to be part of the Trump administration’s plan for dealing with the surge of Central American asylum-seekers who have overwhelmed the U.S. government at the border in recent months.
Apprehensions across the border are at a 12-year high, with nearly 100,000 migrants apprehended in March, according to DHS. Most are Central American families seeking asylum, and many are crossing in the El Paso sector, where apprehensions over the last several months are up more than 1,000 percent compared to the same period last year.
Last Tuesday, officials from the Defense Department and Homeland Security met at the White House to discuss using military resources to construct and staff new tent cities in El Paso and Donna, Texas, NBC News reported. It’s a favorite idea of White House senior adviser Stephen Miller.
“Basically, people are packed into these tents,” Barragán said. “They haven’t fixed the problem; they just moved it.”
Many migrants walk into U.S. territory and approach Border Patrol agents to turn themselves in and request asylum. From there, they are usually taken to rooms at border crossings known as “processing centers” for initial asylum interviews. After they’re processed, migrants are either released by Customs and Border Protection or transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention. But there isn’t enough space in the rooms for the hundreds arriving daily in El Paso, so they are being held for processing at the tent city and under bridges spanning El Paso and Juárez. (ICE facilities in the area are also supposedly full.)
Advocates and attorneys question why the tent city is needed at all, considering the Trump administration and DHS have said for months that the number of migrants arriving at the border was skyrocketing. Following her visit to El Paso, Barragán drove an hour and a half north to Alamogordo, New Mexico to visit an empty Border Patrol station there. “Why can’t the migrants go there?” she said.
Additionally, Barragán and others want to know why it is taking so long for migrants to be processed and released.
Lourdes Ortiz, a member of El Paso’s Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee, said she has little faith that conditions will improve and questioned why asylum-seekers were being held in processing centers like the new tent city for so long.
“There’s no need for them to taking this much time to process people,” Ortiz said. “Even if the excuse is that there’s no capacity to house people to process, that to me is a result of refusing to acknowledge the change in the numbers of people who have been coming to the border.”
Despite pulling agents from inland border checkpoints to process migrants at the border, CBP and Border Patrol have been unable to reduce the bottleneck. The Trump administration has requested $192 million from Congress to hire nearly 300 more officers to work the border.
“One of my concerns is they’re slowing down the process almost intentionally and they’re helping create the appearance of this backlog,” Barragán said. “I don’t know this for sure, and I have nothing to point to other than our history of not getting truthful information from this administration and these agencies.”
In fact, Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General did find evidence that officials were intentionally causing a bottleneck by “metering” asylum-seekers at ports of entry. Then came an executive order that required asylum-seekers to apply only at ports of entry or forfeit their asylum case. The government’s own lawyers admitted that the order would result in even more backups at ports, but that it was “preferable to the status quo.” (The order has been put on hold by a judge.) DHS statistics suggest that metering continues, despite some of the highest numbers of border apprehensions in years.
“If you look at the patterns you’ll see apprehensions between ports of entries skyrocketing but the number of people taken in at ports stays roughly the same,” said Stephanie Leutert, Director of the Mexico Security Initiative at the University of Texas at Austin. “Metering is absolutely still happening just as it has been for some time now.”
Limited efforts to bring more accountability to the asylum process got underway last week when Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-TX) introduced a bill that would require DHS to provide Congress with regular reports about staffing at ports of entry.
Despite all of the administration’s efforts to deter migrants from coming to the border to seek asylum—family separations, metering, the now-failed change to asylum law, and Trump’s promised wall—they have continued to arrive in greater numbers than ever before. It is possible, advocates say, that undesirable conditions in processing centers themselves could be seen as a deterrent by the administration. Still, no amount of deterrence can overcome the desperation of migrants fleeing crushing poverty and violence in their home countries, said Erika Andiola of RAICES Texas, a migrant advocacy organization.
“The fact is that none of this has worked.” said Andiola. “Conditions in Central America are terrible and people are willing to make the sacrifice to give their families a better future. It is up to us whether we welcome them in a humane way, or we torture them for no good reason.”
If conditions at facilities where migrants are being held are meant to be a deterrent, the growing tent city in El Paso could be a test case for how bad conditions could be.