EL PASO, Texas — After several days of media attention, Border Patrol started moving migrants out of an open-air, fenced enclosure beneath a bridge here over the weekend. By the time a delegation of Congressional Democrats arrived to tour the holding pen on Sunday, it was almost empty.
The agency said they decided to relocate the migrants to a large Border Patrol facility on the outskirts of El Paso with “more space and more shelter capability.” It turns out, they meant a parking lot.
Border Patrol had referred to the rocky ground beneath the bridge as a “transitional area,” originally set up to deal with the surge in migrant families. Hundreds of families were eventually held there.
On Sunday, we followed a bus transporting migrants to the new holding area, where CBP had set up three large beige tents outside El Paso Station, which typically processes large groups of migrants. On Monday, we spoke to more than a dozen people who were among those relocated, and had since been released.
We showed them footage of the facility and tents. They confirmed that this was where they'd been taken, and insisted that it was even worse than sleeping under the bridge.
“When they took me out of the bridge, I thanked God because I thought I’d be going to a better place,” said a man who asked to be known only by his first name, Gustavo.
We first met Gustavo under the bridge on Friday. He was moved to the new location on Sunday and held there overnight with his daughter. He agreed to talk about his experience as long as we didn’t share his full name. He’s worried about family members still in Border Patrol custody who arrived at the border with him from Honduras.
“I get to this other jail, and they throw us in those tents. And then more and more and more people kept arriving, until it turned into chaos,” he said after being released to a makeshift shelter provided by an El Paso church.
Gustavo described the scene at the new location as overcrowded to a point of absurdity. He estimates there were about 1,500 people crammed into the three tents, an estimate in line with those of the others we spoke with.
“The kids slept on top of our feet — we were standing up, because we didn’t fit. You couldn’t see even one part of the floor. Just shoes and more shoes.”
Even though temperatures dipped into the low 40s with strong wind gusts on Sunday night, the migrants we spoke with said everyone, including children, was forced to take off any additional layers of clothing and hand them over to the officers.
“I had to hand them my daughter’s sweater,” Syrly, who also asked that we only share her first name, told us. “I watched them throw it away.”
“There were 1-year-olds,” said Gustavo. “They took away their blankets and they threw them in the garbage. They took away their hats. The kids trembled.”
“It was so cold. There wasn’t anything to keep us warm.”
Border Patrol didn’t respond to specific questions about the location and conditions of the new holding area. Instead, they responded with the statement they issued on Sunday about the decision to vacate the area under the bridge and a link to a statement about the severity of the current situation at the southern border, the lack of infrastructure to handle it, and the need for congressional action to address it.
Record numbers of families are being apprehended along the southwest border. Border Patrol and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement in El Paso are so overwhelmed that they’ve been dropping off hundreds of people every day for the past month — many of them without ankle monitors — at makeshift shelters in motels and churches, and at the local Greyhound bus station.
Department of Homeland Security officials say the drop-offs have increased because their system has been slammed with near-record-high numbers of families presenting themselves at the border.
The lack of infrastructure here in El Paso, which was largely spared from the last migrant surge five years ago, has been particularly problematic. Just 562 families crossed through El Paso in all of 2014; more than 36,000 entered through here between Oct. 1 and Feb. 19.
As of Tuesday, the three beige tents were still being used in the parking lot at the station on the outskirts of town. Next to them, the metal frame of two more had appeared. It’s unclear if they’re being built to ease the overcrowding or cram in more families waiting to be processed and released.
Cover image: A growing tent city inside the parking lot of El Paso Station, a Border Patrol facility in El Paso, Texas. (Nate Anderson and Jim Kent/VICE News)