Texas Governor Greg Abbott has called the border crisis a ‘humanitarian disaster’ as COVID cases surge among teens held in a hastily constructed federal holding facility for child migrants with no drinkable water.
The detention center in Midland County, currently holding more than 400 youths, was opened on Sunday after federal officials converted a ‘man camp’ for oilfield workers to help handle a massive surge in illegal border crossings, including many unaccompanied minors.
More than 10 percent of the camp’s population has tested positive for COVID-19 and at least one child had to be hospitalized. And on Friday, Texas officials issued a dire warning that well water used at the holding site could be contaminated with arsenic or other toxins.
‘We’ve known this is a crisis. What I learned in just the past hour shows that we are now dealing with a humanitarian disaster,’ said Abbott, a Republican, in an interview with Fox News on Friday. ‘There’s no telling what could be in there, including the possibility of arsenic… So there is no viable, usable running water at the location in Midland.’
Officials say that there are now more than 14,000 migrant youths being held in federal custody. It is more than three times the largest number of children held under the previous administration, which was widely criticized for putting ‘kids in cages.’
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Friday insisted that President Joe Biden’s administration ‘has this under control’ and continued to refuse to call the situation at the southern border a crisis.
Migrants cross the Rio Bravo river to turn themselves in to U.S Border Patrol agents to request for asylum in El Paso, Texas on Friday night. Unaccompanied minors and adults with children are allowed to remain in the US
Texas Governor Greg Abbott has called the border crisis a ‘humanitarian disaster’ as COVID cases surge among teens held in a hastily constructed federal holding facility for child migrants with no drinkable water
‘We’ve known this is a crisis. What I learned in just the past hour shows that we are now dealing with a humanitarian disaster,’ said Abbott, a Republican, in an interview Friday. Above, migrants cross the border in El Paso
The El Paso sector has seen a 96% increase in illegal crossings by unaccompanied minors so far this year, according to officials. Above, an adult carried a child across the border in El Paso on Friday night
Adults who cross the border illegally with children are usually released into the country pending asylum claims. Above, migrants are seen before crossing the Rio Bravo river to turn themselves in to U.S Border Patrol agents on Friday
President Joe Biden has been accused of ‘issu[ing] an invitation for unaccompanied children to come to this country’. The Biden administration insists the surge in illegal crossings is merely a routine season fluctuation
The facility in Midland has been plagued safety concerns and stopped accepting new youths less than a week after it opened.
An official working at the Midland, Texas, facility said most of the Red Cross volunteers staffing the site don’t speak Spanish, even though the teenagers they care for are overwhelmingly from Central America.
When the facility opened, there weren’t enough new clothes to give to teenagers who had been wearing the same shirts and pants for several days, the official said. And no case managers were on site to begin processing the minors’ release to family elsewhere in the U.S.
Bringing in teenagers while still setting up basic services ‘was kind of like building a plane as it’s taking off,’ said the official, who declined to be named due to government restrictions.
U.S. Health and Human Services notified local officials in Midland on Wednesday that it had no plans to bring more teenagers to the site, according to an email seen by the AP.
HHS spokesman Mark Weber said taking more teenagers to Midland was on ‘pause for now.’ There were still 485 youths there as of Wednesday, 53 of whom had tested positive for COVID-19.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Friday insisted that President Joe Biden’s administration ‘has this under control’ and continued to refuse to call the situation at the southern border a crisis
Migrant youths are processed after entering the site of a temporary holding facility south of Midland, Texas, which has been plagued safety concerns and stopped accepting new youths less than a week after it opened
Department of Homeland Security officers wait for the arrival of migrant teens at the Midland facility, where 10% of the camp residents have COVID and a state agency warned the drinking water might be contaminated
The detention center in Midland County, currently holding more than 400 youths, was opened on Sunday after federal officials converted a ‘man camp’ for oilfield workers
The migrants being held at the Midland facility claim to be minors, but many self-report their age as 17, and it can be difficult to independently verify exactly how old they are
On Friday, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said running water at the Midland camp could be used only to flush toilets or wash clothes because officials aren’t sure whether the water is safe.
It’s unknown how many teenagers may have consumed water from taps or used it otherwise. They are now being given water bottles for drinking.
The Midland camp did not have an active permit with TCEQ for a public water system, according to the agency´s online records. The camp is operated by Katy, Texas-based Cotton Logistics.
Texas state Senator Kel Seliger said Friday that water on site is drawn from a well that the company drilled without getting a TCEQ permit.
‘They just drilled the well,’ said Seliger, a Republican who represents Midland. ‘It’s a pretty shallow well, and that’s where the concern comes in for naturally occurring arsenic, nitrates possibly. Hopefully not oilfield pollutants, but they don´t know.’
U.S. Health and Human Services, which operates long-term facilities for immigrant children, said the water at the Midland facility ‘is deemed potable and is tested regularly above standards,’ but would not say who did the testing and what the testing found. HHS also did not answer questions about when it learned of concerns about the water.
‘We are in contact with our contractor to ensure clean water is accessible for kids and staff in the facility,’ HHS spokeswoman Luisana Perez said.
Charter buses arrive at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas on Wednesday, escorted by Federal Protective Service Police. The convention center will serve as an emergency intake site to hold migrant teens
A security guard at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center checks in vehicles carrying basketball hoops Thursday. The government is equipping the convention center to hold an influx of migrant teens
Asylum-seeking migrants walk out of the Rio Bravo river after crossing it to turn themselves in to U.S Border Patrol agents
A U.S. Border Patrol agent instructs asylum-seeking migrants as they line up along the border wall after crossing the Rio Grande river into the United States from Mexico on a raft in Penitas, Texas on Wednesday
Abbott issued a statement accusing the Biden administration of ‘abject failure when it comes to ensuring the safety of unaccompanied minors who cross our border.’
The Republican governor, facing criticism of his own over his handling of a winter storm that knocked out the state’s power grid, has been sharply critical of the new Democratic administration’s handling of the border.
U.S. officials have rushed to open new sites to hold teenagers and children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border to try to clear packed Border Patrol facilities currently holding thousands of youths — many claiming to be in their late teens, but whose exact ages are difficult to verify.
Biden has kept intact an emergency measure enacted by the Trump administration during the pandemic that allows the government to quickly expel them to Mexico, though adults who bring young children are generally allowed to enter through South Texas.
The Biden administration is not expelling immigrant children unaccompanied by a parent or legal guardian. Several hundred a day are crossing the border, going first to often packed Border Patrol stations while they await placement in the HHS system.
The number of unaccompanied minors crossing the border illegally has surged. CBP Chief Gloria Chavez of the El Paso Sector said that illegal crossings by unaccompanied minors were up 96 percent in the sector for January and February compared to the same period last year.
The Biden administration has also reopened a Trump administration facility in remote Carrizo Springs, Texas, to house migrant children. More than 10 percent of the population at the Carrizo Springs location has tested positive for COVID-19
Intensive care tents sit in a row at a Influx Care Facility (ICF) for unaccompanied minors last month in Carrizo Springs, TX. The facility has dorm-like rooms with areas for eating and bathing — but no media have been allowed in since it reopened
Aerial view of a migrants camp where asylum seekers wait for US authorities to allow them to start their migration process outside El Chaparral crossing port in Tijuana, Mexico on Wednesday
Migrants are seen in custody at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing area under the Anzalduas International Bridge, Friday in Mission, Texas. A surge of migrants on the Southwest border has the Biden administration on the defensive
A similar surge occurred in 2014, following executive action from the Obama administration protecting so-called ‘DREAMers’ who arrived in the country illegally as children. Congress is now considering a bill granting citizenship to DREAMers.
Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who plans to soon visit the border, said the Biden administration, ‘in effect, issued an invitation for unaccompanied children to come to this country.’
HHS earlier this week stopped taking teenagers to the Midland facility for now as the agency opens another emergency holding center at the downtown Dallas convention center, which is expected to reach 400 teenagers Friday.
The Biden administration has also reopened a Trump administration facility in remote Carrizo Springs, Texas, to house migrant children. Abbott said on Friday that that more than 10 percent of the population at the Carrizo Springs location has tested positive for COVID-19.
‘Any time we’re dealing with the massive amount of influx of people coming across the border, that would be a humanitarian crisis and a big challenge now, knowing the magnitude of the spread of COVID in these areas,’ Abbott told Fox News. ‘This is occurring during the course of a pandemic and is endangering lives as we speak.’
HHS has turned to the American Red Cross to care for teenagers in both Midland and Dallas, a departure from the standard practice of having paid, trained staff watch over youths. Red Cross volunteers sit outside portable trailers in Midland to monitor the teenagers staying inside. Staff from HHS and the U.S. Public Health Service are also at both sites.
The Biden administration refuses to allow journalists to visit the holding facilities, a break from the Trump administration, which even at the height of furious criticism allowed the press to tour holding facilities.
‘People don’t trust what they´re doing. They don´t feel secure,’ said U.S. Rep. August Pfluger, a Republican who represents Midland. ‘The lack of transparency only serves to magnify that problem.’
Governor Abbott issued a statement accusing the Biden administration of ‘abject failure when it comes to ensuring the safety of unaccompanied minors who cross our border’
Migrants are seen in custody on Friday at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing area in Mission, Texas. The head of Homeland Security acknowledged the severity of the problem Tuesday but insisted it’s under control
Migrants carry children while in custody at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing area in Texas on Friday
A migrant is seen inside of a van near a respite center after being released from U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody, Friday in McAllen, Texas
In a statement earlier this week, HHS said it was rushing to get children out of Border Patrol custody and that emergency sites ‘will provide a safer and less over-crowded environment where children are cared for and processed as quickly as possible.’
The Red Cross says its volunteers in Midland and Dallas ‘have received intensive training in sheltering operations and COVID-19 safety’ and that they had all undergone background checks. The agency declined to say how many hours of training each volunteer had received.
Pfluger was allowed to visit the site soon after it opened and saw the portable units that serve as rooms for each teenager.
‘It’s a professional facility that was intended for workers,’ he said.
But Pfluger and other Midland officials said the Biden administration wasn´t answering their questions or giving them assurance that officials would keep the surrounding community safe. HHS opened the Midland site without notifying some top local officials who say many of their questions aren’t being answered.
The border crisis had created political challenges for the new Biden administration, with Republicans pouncing to accuse the Democrat of the same tactics that drew moral outrage in the Trump era.
Democrats counter by alleging the actual hypocrisy is among Republicans, who are now feigning concern over immigrant children after years of cheering tougher Trump policies.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has bristled at suggestions that the southern border is in crisis, and White House press secretary Jen Psaki has tried to avoid using the term.
Biden has attempted to discourage men, women and children ready to head to the U.S. border from Mexico, Central America and elsewhere, with hopes of being allowed to more easily cross onto American soil.
‘Don’t leave your town or city or community,’ Biden said during a recent interview with ABC, pleading for more time as his administration works toward longer-term solutions at the border.
Biden has mostly avoided attacks from his party´s progressive wing. One of its top public faces, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, tweeted of reopening the Trump-era facility in Carrizo Springs, ‘This is not okay, never has been okay, never will be okay – no matter the administration or party.’
But she also added that ‘our fraught, unjust immigration system will not transform’ overnight, pinning the blame for the crisis squarely on Trump.