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For weeks, immigrants’ rights advocates have alleged that hundreds of migrants, many of them children, are being crammed into crowded, dirty Border Patrol facilities for long stretches of time.
And now there’s plenty of photographic evidence: Two recent government reports and a clandestine video taken during a Congressional visit to one station show just how bad the conditions are. Hundreds of people have to sleep on the ground at these facilities, and cells are sometimes so crowded that some have to sleep outdoors. Some migrants have been held in these stations for over a month.
But Border Patrol facilities weren’t designed for long-term detention. They’re processing centers that are only equipped to hold migrants for a few hours — or at most, a few days — before they get transferred to other federal agencies.
Customs and Border Protection, the agency that oversees Border Patrol, doesn’t let anyone take “external recording devices” into processing and holding areas. But on Monday, Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro managed to sneak a camera into a station in El Paso.
“Our border patrol system is broken,” Castro, who toured the station as part of a congressional visit to two Texas facilities, said on Twitter. “And part of the reason it stays broken is because it’s kept secret. The American people must see what’s being carried out in their name.”
Castro recorded a video in one of the cells that shows women sitting in sleeping bags on the floor. There were no beds in the room. Several women said they’d been there for upwards of 50 days, and others said they hadn’t showered in two weeks. One woman can be heard saying she wasn’t given necessary medicine.
That station was less crowded when the delegation toured on Monday than it had been a few months earlier. When officers with the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security visited the same El Paso location on May 7, they found more than 700 migrants crammed into the facility. One room designed for 35 people held 155 men, according to the report. Half of the 756 people detained there had to sleep outside, and the detainees had to share just four showers.
Another report from the same government office, released Tuesday, found similar conditions at several processing stations in the Rio Grande Valley. Approximately 8,000 people were held at five Border Patrol stations in that sector, according to the report. Of those, 3,400 had been there for longer than three days, and 1,500 had been there for more than 10 days. Four of the five stations were over capacity, and many held children. All of them detained migrants for longer than three days.
The facility in McAllen, Texas, held 806 children, 165 of whom had been there for more than a week, according to the report. Reuters snapped aerial shots of the McAllen station in May that showed hundreds of people sleeping outdoors on the ground. That same month, CNN obtained a photo of a child sleeping on the ground at the station.
Advocates say that long-term detention in Border Patrol stations is especially hard on children. The Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen released photos on Wednesday of drawings by some children who had recently been released from Border Patrol custody. The children were asked to make drawings reflecting their time at the Border Patrol stations. Most of them drew pictures of frowning children in cages.
The photos in Tuesday’s inspector general report show dozens of people, some wrapped in aluminum blankets, sitting on the floors of crowded cells. Many detainees are wearing face masks. In one photo taken at the Fort Brown station, a man holds up a sign that appears to be written on a piece of cardboard: “Help, 40 days.”
Some of the problems detailed in these reports, including a lack of beds and adequate hygiene supplies, aren’t new. Photos of people sleeping on the floor of a Tuscon, Arizona, station date back to 2015. But under Trump, migrants are being kept in these processing stations for weeks, and even months. The Trump administration has said the overcrowding is due to a surge in migrants.
“They have gotten worse under the Trump administration, because the administration really hasn't made an effort to move people out of the system quickly,” Castro told PBS NewsHour Tuesday. “Rather than moving them out of the system, they're holding them for longer periods of time.”
Cover image: Migrants at the Fort Brown Border Patrol station. (Photo courtesy of the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security)