Originally Appeared in The Daily Beast.
By Scott Bixby, Spencer Ackerman
‘They have us locked up as prisoners,’ said one detained man.
As many as 2,000 Central American migrants have been detained in an abandoned body bag factory for more than two weeks, as the bureaucratic chaos resulting from the Trump administration’s “Remain In Mexico” asylum policy spreads across both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
The conditions inside the building in Piedras Negras, Mexico, which once manufactured body bags for the U.S. Army, have made the facility feel like a prison: lines for food that stretch for hours, concrete floors crowded with thin foam mats for sleeping, and not enough warm clothes to go around as nighttime temperatures drop below freezing.
“They have us locked up as prisoners,” said one detained man, speaking through a fence to a field officer working with Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), according to an audiotape of the conversation relayed to The Daily Beast. “This cold is tremendous, and the real truth is that there are children, there are sick people, there are seniors, and… we’re in an abandoned factory.”
The chaos in the Piedras Negras facility is largely due to a lack of preparation, advocates said, as President Donald Trump’s “Remain In Mexico” policy—which forces asylum seekers to wait south of the border while their asylum cases are adjudicated—goes into effect.
Those held in the factory “want to present for asylum, but it’s unclear from Mexican authorities how that happens, and it’s definitely unclear from U.S. authorities how that happens,” said Joe Rivano Barros, a RAICES field officer who was on-site in Piedras Negras last week. “They feel like prisoners, and they don’t know what’s going on, and nobody has explained the asylum policy to them—the process is extremely opaque.”
The majority of those held in there arrived on Feb. 4, part of a migrant caravan of Central Americans who were intercepted by the Mexican government in the city of Saltillo, roughly five hours south of the border. According to a state government spokesperson, the roughly 1,600 migrants were loaded onto 49 buses for their own safety, bound for Piedras Negras and, they assumed, the chance to declare asylum at the American border city of Eagle Pass, Texas.
Upon their arrival, however, the caravan’s members were instead taken to an abandoned maquiladora, a foreign-owned factory where products—in this case, military body bags—were assembled by low-wage workers before being imported to the United States. Alongside nearly 400 other migrants seeking asylum, they have been held in the facility ever since, forbidden by armed soldiers and policy from leaving in the hopes of preventing a massive rush of asylum-seekers to Eagle Pass.
“The military is slowly giving people these one-year humanitarian visas,” Rivano Barros said, which allow detainees to leave the site and seek asylum at the U.S. border. But hostility to the migrants in the city is so intense, Rivano Barros said, that “even those with humanitarian visas have had them ripped up outside by federal police, and they are sent back into the shelter.”
Even those who make it to the U.S. border face an uncertain future. Under the Department of Homeland Security’s new “Migration Protection Protocols,” migrants seeking asylum in the United States at the southern border are required to remain in Mexico for the duration of their immigration proceedings. With a massive backlog for asylum cases, exacerbated by the recent government shutdown, that could require the migrants to wait in Piedras Negras for years.
“There doesn’t seem to be a plan, past when this shelter closes,” Rivano Barros said. “There’s no plan for how to deal with these almost 2,000 people, who, even if they get through to the border, will have to be turned back.”
The militarization of the U.S. southern border resulting from Trump’s invocation of a national state of emergency to build his wall may force the hands of asylum seekers who, under traditional international legal standards, would be able to stay in the United States while their cases are processed and reviewed.
But even if those held in the factory make it inside the United States, a new deal with Congress makes it easier for them to be detained. Trump’s declaration came after Congress reached a deal to keep the government open, but without the money Trump wanted for the wall. A key part of reaching that deal involved the Democrats backing down on what was already a loophole-laden demand to limit Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention of undocumented immigrants inside the U.S., which exploded in 2018 in the face of explicit caps from congressional appropriators.
Instead of a cap of an average daily detainee population of 35,520 through Sept. 30, Democrats gave ICE the explicit leeway to lock up an average of 45,724 people every day—more than 5,000 more people than the 40,500 daily detention population permitted in last spring’s budget. ICE instead exceeded that limit by over 9,000 people, a precedent immigration observers consider prologue for what comes next.
“What happened this week means people will die,” said Heidi Altman, the policy director of the National Immigrant Justice Center. “It means more dads locked away while their kids cry out for them. More women agreeing to be deported back to their death just to escape the hell of detention. This administration is grabbing money every which way, all toward the goal of criminalizing and jailing immigrants. It’s way past time for Congress to wake up and do its job.”
One city official in Eagle Pass who was not authorized to speak to the press told The Daily Beast that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (USCBP) in the city has struggled to process any more than a dozen initial credible fear claims by asylum seekers per day. With nearly 2,000 waiting in line behind them, the backlog of applicants could take six months to complete.
Rick Pauza, a USCBP spokesperson, did confirm or deny that number, but told The Daily Beast that the agency “processes undocumented persons as expeditiously as possible without negating the agency's overall mission, or compromising the safety of individuals within our custody.”
“When our ports of entry reach capacity, we have to manage the queues and individuals presenting without documents may need to wait in Mexico as [USCBP] officers work to process those already within our facilities,” Pauza said.
Mavy Segura, the supervising officer of the agency’s Eagle Pass field office, said in a statement that USCBP “continually assess the capabilities of our facilities throughout the Southwest border and have been making—and will continue to make—necessary preparations.”
Those preparations have largely taken the form of a massive increase in U.S. military troops stationed along the U.S.-Mexico border in Eagle Pass, rather than new officials to process asylum claims, part of a buildup that President Donald Trump called for in his State of the Union address this month.
In this broken system, advocates worry that the migrants’ needs in the Piedras Negras will fall through the cracks, including basic needs like food and clothing. During this month’s nationwide cold snap, temperatures in Piedras Negras dropped to 28 degrees Fahrenheit, and detainees resorted to stealing jackets to keep warm. According to the Mexican government, nearly half of the people detained in the facility are women and children.
“They wait two hours in line to get food every day,” Rivano Barros said. “If you are in line when the food runs out, you just don’t get food.”
Such conditions can be extremely dangerous, particularly for children in detention, according to experts.
Although the United Nations and the Mexican Red Cross have toured the facility in recent days, no independent aid groups have been allowed inside, and detainees have not had access to lawyers who can help them navigate the American asylum system.
After the state government announced last week that the Piedras Negras facility would be closed by the end of February, tensions only increased. The resulting uncertainty about the length of their detention, as well as nearly two weeks of poor conditions, has prompted migrants in the factory to begin protesting their detention. On Wednesday afternoon, after guards refused to allow those with humanitarian visas to leave for outside food, detainees began demonstrating in the factory’s concrete courtyard, tearing down tents and pushing down interior fencing.
“They just want to be let out to do the asylum process,” Rivano Barros said of the demonstrators.” They want to be able to seek asylum at the border, and to be let out to do so.”
In the words of the male detainee, those protesting just desire one thing: to be allowed to seek asylum at the border, as they are legally entitled to do.
“I know they are also humans… therefore, they will understand,” one male detainee said of U.S. officials at the border said through the fence, according to the recording provided to The Daily Beast. “Take a visit to the shelter where we are staying and you will understand our complaints.”