Reporters on Tuesday were allowed into a packed migrant facility in Texas, where thousands of migrants are housed as the Biden administration scrambles to deal with the crisis at the southern border — and officials warning that the U.S. could see a million migrants encounters at the border this year.
A press pool was allowed into the center in Donna, Texas, after journalists and Republicans have criticized the administration for refusing entry into the site as images emerged showing cramped conditions of children side-by-side in pods.
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There are 4,100 migrants in the facility, 3,400 of whom are unaccompanied minors. Thirty-nine of those have been at the facility for more than 15 days. Its capacity was just 250 during the pandemic, and 1,000 before the pandemic.
There are eight “pods” in total — critics have called them “cages” in reference to criticism leveled at the Trump administration — each containing 500-600 migrants. Guidelines say there should only be 32 migrants in each pod. Donna’s temporary facility is 140,000 square feet.
Children sleep on three-inch gym mats and lie under metallic foil blankets. Kids are given masks but many don’t wear them. In one room, pool reporters saw a purple and pink pen surrounding a group of 27 children on an alphabet rug, ranging from 3-9 years old. The youngest child is just four months old.
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The packed conditions have led to concerns about COVID-19 spread, with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, saying last week that he was told 10 percent of the migrants test positive. The pool reported that several dozen of those preparing to leave had tested positive and were now separated — but were in the same pods as other minors until this morning.
The pool was told that there are over 500 Border Patrol agents working at the facility. While it should cost $6 million to run the facility each month, officials said it costs $16 million in reality.
The Department of Homeland Security turned over 600 unaccompanied children to HHS on Monday and will have 270 migrants leave on Tuesday. Two planes are flying out each day from the Rio Grande Valley each day to El Paso and San Diego transporting migrants.
Meanwhile, officials offered only grim predictions for the future. In the field in McAllen, Texas Deputy Border Chief Raul Ortiz told reporters that he “fully expects” Border Patrol to encounter more than a million migrants this year.
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Many migrants, specifically single adults, can be expelled by Title 42 health protections implemented during the Trump administration. But those are not being applied to unaccompanied children as well as some migrant families — who Mexico refuse to take back.
At the facility, Oscar Escamilla, Acting Executive Officer for Border Patrol, had a warning if Title 42 powers were not renewed
“If on April 21, they do not renew Title 42, you can expect every single facility on the southwest border will be just like this,” he said.
The Biden administration has come under heavy criticism for the surge in numbers — which it has refused to call a crisis — and the conditions at the facilities. Critics have linked the overwhelming numbers to Biden moves to reverse Trump-era policies like the Migrant Protection Protocols, which kept migrants in Mexico for their claims.
“This is inhumane, it is wrong and it is the direct consequence of policy decisions by the Biden administration to stop building the wall, to return to catch-and-release, and to end the stay-in-Mexico policy,” Cruz said Friday after touring the Donna facility.
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Biden’s administration has conceded it faces a “challenge” at the border but has blamed the Trump administration’s ending of pathways for asylum.
“He, in fact, shut down the number of beds available,” Biden said at a press conference last week. “He did not fund HHS to get people to get the children out of those Border Patrol facilities, where they should not be and not supposed to be more than a few days. But he dismantled all of that.”
He also pledged more transparency for reporters “as soon as I am in a position to be able to implement what we are doing right now,”