Originally Published in The Washington Post
Nick Miroff - March 30, 2021
The reporters allowed inside described extreme levels of overcrowding, including one detention “pod” with 516 minors despite a pandemic-rated capacity of 32 people. Another pod had 676 minors, and a third had 567, officials said. The Biden administration is on pace to take in more than 17,000 unaccompanied minors this month, far higher than the previous record of 11,861 in May 2019.
DHS officials said the decision to allow a small reporting crew known as a “pool” into the facility was intended to limit the risk of coronavirus exposure. The Washington Post was not included but received a report.
Oscar Escamilla, a Border Patrol official who accompanied the reporters during a two-hour tour, said 14 percent of the minors have been testing positive for the coronavirus when they are transferred to Health and Human Services shelters. CBP does not test the minors in its custody unless they show symptoms, he said.
Earlier this month HHS said the positivity rate inside its shelter facilities was 4.5 percent, a figure that appears to indicate significantly more teenagers and children may be acquiring infections in the cramped CBP tents.
Images of the extreme overcrowding were released this month by Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and other lawmakers who were allowed inside. The Biden administration has faced mounting criticism for its handling of the an influx of migrants arriving at the border, as well as its strict limits on media access to detention sites, shelters and border areas where thousands of migrants have been arriving daily.
The Donna site is CBP’s largest emergency processing center along the Mexico border. Escamilla told reporters the site costs $16 million a month to operate, excluding medical services and caregiver contracts. He said this influx of minors is different from what he has seen in other years.
“There’s a pull factor. They know that we’re releasing them,” Escamilla said. “They know that right now there’s nothing stopping them. We’re not going to deport them back to their country so they keep coming.”
CBP data obtained by The Post shows the facility has been even more overcrowded on recent days. The Biden administration is setting up at least nine temporary shelter sites run by FEMA and HHS to accommodate the record numbers of minors in government care. The addition of thousands of emergency beds this week is expected to alleviate the crisis-level conditions the Biden administration has faced for weeks.
“As I have said repeatedly, a Border Patrol facility is no place for a child,” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement. “We have been working around-the-clock, in coordination with HHS, to quickly move unaccompanied children out of these crowded Border Patrol stations and into the care of HHS so they can be placed with family members or other sponsors.”
“We are seeing progress, but it takes time,” Mayorkas continued. “In the meantime, the CBP workforce has done heroic work under difficult circumstances to protect these children. Let me be clear: the border is not open, people should not make the dangerous journey, and we will continue to expel individuals and families.”
Mayorkas was referring to the Title 42 pandemic health order the government has used since last March to rapidly turn back or “expel” migrants crossing illegally. The Biden administration has declined to use the order to return unaccompanied Central American minors to their home countries, and by law they are supposed to be transferred to the HHS refugee office within 72 hours.
The unprecedented number of minors arriving this month has resulted in a prolonged, flagrant violation of the law.
More than 2,000 of the minors at the Donna site have been held in excess of 72 hours, Escamilla said, including 39 who have been in the tents for at least 15 days. One minor has waited 20 days, he said, and on average, teens and children are spending 133 hours in the facility before HHS placement, roughly twice the legal limit.
The reporters in the pool said they saw about 60 minors waiting for admission to the site at the time of the tour. The report described how these children and teenagers are processed upon arrival.
First, they are taken to a small inspection room staffed by nurse practitioners and physician assistants to be checked for lice, scabies and fever. The minors also undergo a health check and have their hair washed. Nurse practitioners administer psychological tests and ask minors if they’ve had suicidal thoughts. The children’s shoelaces are removed as a precaution.
Then, the minors are led down a hall carpeted with green turf to a large intake room. Those age 14 and older have facial photos taken and their prints are collected. This does not happen with the younger children.
The teens and children are then sent to a second intake room where they receive notices to appear for immigration court and are allowed to call a relative or other contact in the United States. The minors receive bracelets with a bar code that carries a record of their shower frequency, as well as any medical conditions.
During the tour, reporters were also shown a large supply room stocked with tampons, diapers and snacks, a “tender-age” section designated for the youngest children that had a large playpen area and sleeping mats. There, a 17-year-old cared for a newborn and a 11-year-old boy cared for his 5-year-old sister.