By Simon Romero
Federal immigration officials appear to have cleared out an enclosure under a bridge in El Paso, Texas, where they were detaining hundreds of families of asylum-seekers, following an outcry over conditions at the site.
The site was empty Sunday morning, and images of the location circulated by journalists showed it empty of migrant families. It was not immediately clear where the families who were held at the site were transferred, or whether the enclosure under the bridge would be used again.
A spokesman for the Border Patrol said he could not comment on the matter right away.
Officials with Customs and Border Protection contended last week that they had no choice but to hold the migrants in the enclosure, surrounded by fencing and razor wire, because of overcrowding at processing facilities in El Paso brought on by a surge in Central American migrants applying for asylum.
Kevin McAleenan, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, addressed journalists Wednesday near the enclosure when he claimed that the country’s immigration enforcement system was at a “breaking point.”
Criticism over the bridge enclosure had been building all week, with reports of children sleeping on trash-strewn gravel at the site under the Paso del Norte bridge. Some migrant families stayed inside a military tent set up at the site; others remained outside even as nighttime temperatures dipped into the 40s.
The American Civil Liberties Union said Sunday that the detention of migrants in outdoor pens was “an unprecedented and extreme violation.”
Citing interviews with families held under the bridge, the ACLU said it had received reports that agents had verbally and physically harmed migrants, forced them to stand for prolonged periods, deprived them of sleep and access to medical care, and had failed to provide the migrants with adequate food and water.
Some families were detained under the bridge for as long as four days, the ACLU said, adding that families with infant children were told to sleep on the ground and were not provided with any bedding, mats or chairs.
“We are demanding an immediate investigation by the inspector general into abuses inflicted on asylum-seekers by Border Patrol agents in the outdoor facilities,” said Shaw Drake, policy counsel for the ACLU’s border rights center.
Migrants have since been transferred to undisclosed locations, he said, adding that “the agency has not told us or members of Congress where migrants are now being held and under what conditions.”
Local political leaders and human rights groups said that a sharp increase in asylum-seekers should have been foreseeable, as part of an annual surge in border crossings before the arrival of the deadly summer heat.
Immigration officials were already scrambling to respond to a shifting profile of migrants arriving at the border with Mexico. Border Patrol apprehensions remain well below their peak of 1.6 million in 2000, but they have been climbing lately, reaching 467,000 in 2018, the highest figure in six years. And more of them are now Central American families seeking asylum rather than single men from Mexico.
Federal immigration officials claim that legal rulings have created loopholes that make it more attractive for Central Americans to apply for asylum in the United States.
“This status quo is not an option,” Andrew Meehan, assistant commissioner for public affairs at Customs and Border Protection, said in a statement Saturday. “The legal framework must be addressed,” he said, repeating the administration’s calls for Congress to address asylum laws. “The only remedy to this crisis is congressional action.”
Advocates for immigrants said the federal government was obligated by law to humanely process asylum requests and could have avoided the need for migrant families to spend days on end in the holding pen.
“If they wanted to prepare for this, they could have done so,” said Fernando Garcia, director of the Border Network for Human Rights, an organization in El Paso. “The administration could have redirected resources, assigned more asylum agents, looked at what was happening on the ground.”
Immigration officials in El Paso have asserted that detention facilities were overwhelmed in the city, as in other places along the border. McAleenan said that the Border Patrol was temporarily reassigning about 750 inspectors to care for newly arrived Central American families.
In its complaint to the inspector general, the ACLU questioned why the Border Parol was resorting to holding migrants under the bridge when its budget had grown to $16.7 billion in 2019 from $7.1 billion in 2006. The Border Patrol’s workforce has also expanded, the civil liberties union said, reaching 19,555 in 2018, compared with 9,212 in 2000.