Thousands of migrants on informal waitlists have been in limbo in Mexico for months with no clarity on their fates.
The Biden administration has for the first time allowed journalists inside its main border detention facility for migrant children, revealing a severely overcrowded tent structure where more than 4,000 migrants, including children and families, were crammed into pods and the youngest kept in a large playpen with mats on the floor for sleeping.
With thousands of children and families arriving at the US-Mexico border in recent weeks and packing facilities, President Joe Biden has been under pressure to bring more transparency to the process. US Customs and Border Protection allowed two journalists from The Associated Press news agency and a crew from CBS to tour the facility in Donna, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley on Tuesday.
The facility has a capacity of 250 but more than 4,100 people were being housed on the property on Tuesday. Most were unaccompanied children processed in tents before being taken to shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services and then placed with a family member, relative or sponsor.
The children were being housed by the hundreds in eight pods about 297 square metres (3,200 square feet) in size. Many of the pods had more than 500 children in them.
Oscar Escamilla, acting executive officer of the US Border Patrol in the Rio Grande Valley, said 250 to 300 children enter daily and far fewer leave.
“That number is so lopsided,” said Escamilla.
On Tuesday, journalists watched children being processed. They went into a small room for lice inspection and a health check. Their hair was hosed down and towels were tossed in a black bin marked “Lice”. The minors — many of whom have made long journeys to get to the border, including stretches on foot — were also checked for scabies, fever and other ailments. No COVID-19 test was administered unless a child showed symptoms.
Nurse practitioners also gave psychological tests, asking children if they had suicidal thoughts. All shoelaces were removed to avoid harm to anyone.
The children were then led down a green turf hall to a large intake room. Those 14 and older are fingerprinted and have their photos taken; younger children did not.
Then they were taken to a second intake room where they got notices to appear for immigration court. Border Patrol agents asked them if they had a contact in the US and allowed the child to speak with them by phone.
Children were given bracelets with a barcode that shows the history of when they showered and medical conditions.
Outside the facility, the roar of construction equipment could be heard along with air conditioning units.
Tuesday’s tour for reporters comes a week after photos from this facility were made public by Democratic Representative Henry Cuellar, who represents a nearby US House district on the Texas-Mexico border.
Cuellar told Axios that children were being held under “terrible conditions” in Donna and said the facility consists of “pods” that can hold up to 260 people, but were holding more than that.
Biden and his administration are facing harsh criticism from Republicans, who are blaming the US president and his shift from former President Donald Trump’s hardline policies for the surge in migrants and asylum seekers at the southern border.
Biden, who named Vice President Kamala Harris to lead his administration’s efforts to try to slow down the flow of migrants to the border, has defended his handling of the situation, blaming Trump’s “dismantling” of the system to process migrants as the reason for the current struggles in housing them.
“What we’re doing now is attempting to rebuild, rebuild the system,” Biden said at a news conference last Thursday.
“We’re building back up the capacity … that Trump dismantled. It’s going to take time.”