Disturbing images show the cramped conditions inside a migrant ‘overflow’ tent in Texas where one lawmaker says 400 unaccompanied male minors are being held in ‘terrible conditions’ in a space meant for half as many.
The pictures, released by Congressman Henry Cuellar, show inside the U.S. Customs and Border Protection temporary overflow facility in Donna over the weekend.
Democrat Cuellar said he did not take the images but said that they offer an insight into the ‘terrible conditions for the children’ at the border, where he has recently toured a different shelter for children.
Rep. Cuellar told Axios that as of Sunday 400 unaccompanied male minors were being kept in a tent meant to hold a maximum of 260 people.
He added: ‘We have to stop kids and families from making the dangerous trek across Mexico to come to the United States. We have to work with Mexico and Central American countries to have them apply for asylum in their countries.’
The Biden administration has so far restricted media access to the facilities amid a growing humanitarian and political crisis at the US southern border.
A total of 823 unaccompanied children were held at US-Mexico border facilities for more than 10 days – more than a fourfold increase over the last week, according to an internal Department of Homeland Security document also leaked to Axios Sunday.
Children are not supposed to be held in border patrol custody for more than three days. As of Saturday 2,226 children had been held in custody for more than five days and 823 for more than 10 days.
The pictures show inside the U.S. Customs and Border Protection temporary overflow facility in Donna
Congressman Henry Cuellar released the images; he confirmed they were taken over this weekend
Rep. Cuellar said they offer an insight into the ‘terrible conditions for the children’ at the border
The number of unaccompanied migrant kids in US custody surpassed 15,000 as of Saturday as the Biden administration announced that they ‘would not expel young, vulnerable children.’ This is a reverse of Trump administration policy, which was to generally expel all people who tried to illegally cross the border, regardless of age.
Neha Desai, a lawyer for the National Center for Youth Law (NCYL), told CBS about the harrowing conditions that she and her NCYL colleague Leecia Welch witnessed when they visited a tent holding facility for unaccompanied minors in Donna, Texas, last week.
She said the tent was so overcrowded that migrant children had to take turns sleeping on the floor and could only shower one time a week. The children also reported being unable to call family members, Desai said.
Cuellar said that as of Sunday 400 unaccompanied male minors were being kept in a tent meant to hold 260
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki had said there would be organized trips for press to gain access to detention facilities; later, she walked back on those comments and refused to share images from the facilities
Desai said she believes ‘the Biden administration is committed to humanely addressing the humanitarian situation we now face’.
But she added: ‘Time will tell whether the government’s good intentions and hard work will translate into the changes that are urgently needed.’
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki had said there would be organized trips for press to gain access to detention facilities. Later, she walked back on those comments, but promised photos to show conditions.
Then last Thursday, Psaki said the White House would not be releasing to the media photos that advisors shared with President Biden to brief him on conditions on facilities housing childhood migrants on the border.
With the number of migrants surging, administration officials say President Biden inherited an untenable situation that resulted from what they say was former president Donald Trump’s undermining and weakening of the immigration system.
Trump, however, said Biden has simply mismanaged the border and undone the policies that kept things under control. The former president on Sunday evening called the situation at the border ‘a national disaster.’
Career immigration officials had warned there could be a surge after the November election and the news that Trump’s hard-line policies were being reversed.
Now, as Congress pivots to immigration legislation, stories of unaccompanied minors and families trying to cross the border and seek asylum and of overwhelmed border facilities have begun to dominate the headlines, distracting from the White House´s efforts to promote the recently passed $1.9trillion COVID-19 relief bill.
Biden told reporters Sunday at the White House that ‘at some point’ he would go to the border and that he knows what is going on in the border facilities.
The White House dispatched Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to four Sunday news shows in an effort to stress that it was working to get things under control.
‘Our message has been straightforward – the border is closed,’ Mayorkas said. ‘We are expelling families. We are expelling single adults. And we’ve made a decision that we will not expel young, vulnerable children.’
The White House has steadfastly refused to call the situation a ‘crisis,’ leading to a Washington battle over the appropriate description of the tense situation.
Congressman Henry Cuellar released images from inside the U.S. Customs and Border Protection temporary overflow facility in Donna over the weekend
In the first days of his term, Biden acted to undo some of Trump’s measures, a rollback interpreted by some as a signal to travel to the United States. There have even been ‘Biden’ flags spotted in migrant camps in Mexico.
While the new administration was working on immigration legislation to address long-term problems, it didn’t have an on-the-ground plan to manage a surge of migrants.
‘We have seen large numbers of migration in the past. We know how to address it. We have a plan. We are executing on our plan and we will succeed,’ Mayorkas said.
But, he added, ‘it takes time’ and is ‘especially challenging and difficult now’ because of the Trump administration’s moves.
‘So we are rebuilding the system as we address the needs of vulnerable children who arrived at our borders.’
Biden officials have done away with the ‘kids in cages’ imagery that defined the Trump family separation policy – though Trump used facilities built during the Obama administration – but have struggled with creating the needed capacity to deal with the surge.
Officials are trying to build up capacity to care for some 15,000 migrants now in federal custody – and more likely on the way. Critics say the administration should have been better prepared.
‘I haven’t seen a plan,’ said Rep Michael McCaul, R-Texas. ‘They have created a humanitarian crisis down here at this border that you have seen now. And the reason why they are coming is because he says words do matter, and they do. The messaging is that if you want to come, you can stay.’
Since Biden’s inauguration on January 20, the US has seen a dramatic spike in the number of people encountered by border officials.
There were 18,945 family members and 9,297 unaccompanied children encountered in February – an increase of 168 per cent and 63 per cent, respectively, from the month before, according to the Pew Research Center.
Among the reasons for the surge: thousands of Central American migrants already stuck at the border for months and the persistent scourge of gang violence afflicting Northern Triangle countries – Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Still, the encounters of both unaccompanied minors and families are lower than they were at various points during the Trump administration, including in spring 2019.
Migrants are seen in a green area outside of a soft-sided detention center in Donna, Texas on Friday
The White House has steadfastly refused to call the situation a ‘crisis,’ leading to a Washington battle over the appropriate description of the tense situation. The immigration processing facility in Donna, Texas is pictured
Pointing to the urgency of the situation at the border, Sen Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, expressed confidence that enough Republicans would vote to pass an immigration overhaul.
‘We go into this debate, whether it’s a crisis or a challenge at the border. Let me tell you, the crisis. We need to address our immigration laws in this country that are broken,’ said Durbin.
Migrant children are sent from border holding cells to other government facilities until they are released to a sponsor.
That process was slowed considerably by a Trump administration policy of ‘enhanced vetting,’ in which details were sent to immigration officials and some sponsors wound up getting arrested, prompting some to fear picking up children over worries of being deported.
Biden has reversed that policy, so immigration officials hope the process will speed up now.
The White House also points to Biden’s decision to deploy the Federal Emergency Management Agency to support efforts to process the growing number of unaccompanied migrant children arriving at the border.