Broken Border

No toothbrushes or showers, kids coughing all night: Migrants describe conditions inside border facilities

The Tribune interviewed more than a dozen migrants after their release from U.S. Customs and Border Protection facilities. The conditions they described ranged from livable to horrible.

Migrants secure tickets at the McAllen bus station.
Migrants secure tickets at the McAllen bus station.  Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune
Broken Border

A surge of migrants arriving at the Texas-Mexico border has pushed the country's immigration system to the breaking point as new policies aimed at both undocumented immigrants and legal asylum seekers have contributed to a humanitarian crisis. The Texas Tribune is maintaining its in-depth reporting on this national issue.

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MCALLEN — They don’t shower or brush their teeth for days on end. They watch their sick kids cough and cry through the night. And some of them brave toilets so foul, one migrant said, that kids can’t help but throw up inside of them.

These are some of the descriptions provided during interviews this week with more than a dozen migrants held by U.S. border officials and then released to a Catholic shelter in the Rio Grande Valley, ground zero in the unprecedented surge of immigrant families crossing the southern border.

“They don’t have the humanitarian conditions for people to be there,” said Gary, a 33-year-old migrant from Siguatepeque, Honduras, who would only give his first name. “There were more than 200 of us in a single cage — seated on the floor, standing, however we could fit.” He said the stench inside overflowing toilets was so bad it made him gag and caused children to vomit.

“The bathrooms are full, they aren’t cleaning them regularly,” he said.

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Some of the women and children were allowed to bathe. Gary’s wife and 7-year-old son, for example, bathed once during their four days inside. Gary, and most of the other men interviewed, said they never got to change out of the filthy clothes they wore when they crossed the border.

Many of those interviewed by The Texas Tribune were held at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Central Processing Center in McAllen, one of the two facilities that volunteer attorneys recently described as dangerously overcrowded and unable to provide “safe and sanitary” conditions as required by the 1997 federal court settlement commonly known as the Flores agreement. The lawyers also described horrid conditions in tiny Clint, just outside El Paso.

The U.S. Border Patrol Central Processing Center, colloquially known as Ursula, in McAllen on June 28, 2019.
The U.S. Border Patrol Central Processing Center on Military Highway in McAllen on June 28, 2019.

Left: The U.S. Border Protection Central Processing Center colloquially known as "Ursula." Right: Another U.S. Border Protection Central Processing Center is located on Military Highway in McAllen. This facility has tents within its parameters. Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

But that’s not the only facility struggling to provide basic necessities, some migrants said.

Two Angolans interviewed at a San Antonio migrant shelter said they were sent to a facility in Del Rio in West Texas where they couldn’t bathe or brush their teeth during a two-day stay — a testament to how overwhelmed federal authorities are up and down the border. Left with just $2, they were still trying to get bus tickets to Portland, Maine, as of Friday afternoon.

“We were in prison. For two days, we didn’t take a bath, we couldn’t clean ourselves, we couldn't brush our teeth. The way we got there was the way we left,” said a 43-year-old Angolan migrant who gave his middle name, Evaristo; he said he crossed from the Mexican border city of Ciudad Acuña into Del Rio this week with his wife and three children.

Migrants wait outside a makeshift center in downtown San Antonio where  people are given food and a bag with basic hygiene products, then escorted to a nearby shelter to sleep for the night.
Migrants wait outside a makeshift center in downtown San Antonio where people are given food and a bag with basic hygiene products, then escorted to a nearby shelter to sleep for the night.  Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

On the other hand, several migrants gave mostly positive reviews of the big “white tent” they stayed in at the newest processing facility in Donna, near McAllen — demonstrating that conditions also can vary wildly from one center to the next, and in some cases, from one migrant family to the next.

“We were well taken care of,” said Guatemalan migrant Francisca Hernandez, 44, after stepping off a chartered bus from Donna and heading to the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center in downtown McAllen. Although neither she nor her twin teenage girls said they got baths or changes of clothes over the 48 hours they spent in Donna, they slept on mattresses and had clean bathrooms and plentiful and decent food.

The migrants are sent to the CBP processing facilities after crossing the border and being apprehended or turning themselves in to agents. Most of the migrants traveling as part of a family seek out the first uniformed officer they can find and request asylum. Once they are processed, most are released with instructions to appear later in immigration court, then shuttled to the McAllen bus station, where chartered buses filled with migrants arrived like clockwork during the day this week.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which includes the Border Patrol, said it could not comment or research any specific allegations unless the Tribune provided the agency with names, alien registration numbers, and times and dates of the alleged treatment.

But in a written statement provided by CBP, an official said “all allegations of civil rights abuses or mistreatment in CBP detention are taken seriously and investigated to the fullest extent possible.”

“U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) leverages our limited resources to provide the best care possible to those in our custody, especially children. As DHS [Department of Homeland Security] and CBP leadership have noted numerous times, our short-term holding facilities were not designed to hold vulnerable populations and we urgently need additional humanitarian funding to manage this crisis,” the official said. “CBP works closely with our partners at the Department of Health and Human Services to transfer unaccompanied children to their custody as soon as placement is identified, and as quickly and expeditiously as possible to ensure proper care.”

One CBP official pushed back on the migrants’ descriptions, saying that reporters were able to see for themselves on a recent media tour that the Central Processing Facility has “medical personnel, has food, clothing, shower facilities and laundry facilities.” The CBP official requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

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None of the migrants interviewed knew the names or precise locations of the facilities where they stayed. The Texas Tribune tracked chartered buses from both the Central Processing Center and Donna to the McAllen bus station, making it possible to connect the firsthand accounts of many of the migrants to specific facilities.

An immigration bus carrying migrants departs the U.S. Border Patrol Central Processing Center known as Ursula in McAllen on Thursday. The bus will drop-off the migrants at the McAllen Bus Station.
An immigration bus carrying migrants departs the U.S. Border Patrol Central Processing Center known as Ursula in McAllen on Thursday. The bus will drop-off the migrants at the McAllen Bus Station.  Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Their descriptions also match photos of the giant warehouse-like facility on Ursula Avenue — chain-link cells or, as they put it, “cages,” in the middle of a cavernous facility. Most would only give their first names for fear of jeopardizing their asylum cases or getting harassed by federal authorities.

“If you’re able to sleep two hours, you’re lucky,” said Kevin, 21, who had been in the Ursula center for two days and said he never got a bath, toothbrush or toothpaste.

Ananias, 42, was in a cell — “like a dog’’ — at the same center, with his son Gerson, 16. He said they had to sleep in their wet clothes and never got clean ones, let alone toothbrushes.

“It was bad because it was very cold,” he said.

The Central Processing Center — sometimes just called “Ursula” because of the street it’s on — is designed to hold 1,500 people but, as of Thursday, held just under 2,000, according to a Border Patrol official who gave the media a tour of the center. Media outlets on the tour reported that they were not allowed to speak with or photograph the migrants.

The Ursula center, an intake facility where migrants are taken for initial asylum examinations and the gathering of biographical information and fingerprints, was engulfed in controversy after plaintiffs' lawyers made inspections there and in El Paso County in mid-June to ensure compliance with the Flores agreement.

After some of the lawyers shared details of their visits with the Associated Press and other outlets, the news prompted an outcry by members of Congress, presidential candidates and Vice President Mike Pence, who called the conditions “totally unacceptable.” The blowback brought about a rare break from the partisan gridlock in Congress, which approved $4.6 billion in emergency funding that President Donald Trump is expected to approve.

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Harlingen lawyer Jodi Goodwin was among those who participated in the inspections of both the Central Processing Center and a temporary tent city built inside the nearby McAllen Border Patrol station. After she and fellow lawyers “raised a stink” about several child migrants who were gravely ill, at least four were soon taken to a hospital, she said.

Goodwin disputed official accounts — delivered during the press tour of the Ursula center Thursday — that every migrant child gets a medical screening at the processing facilities.

"Of all of the people that I saw throughout McAllen Border Patrol and Ursula, there was only one person who ever told me that they had been medically screened, and I interviewed throughout both facilities, probably 60 kids,” Goodwin said.

The health of 6-month-old Yarely was the major concern for Alfredo and Merlin, two 20-something Salvadoran migrants who said they were held for four days without baths or clean clothes in the Rio Grande Valley — precisely where, they weren’t sure. Their daughter got sick inside — as did many other children they saw — and was still coughing at the bus station in McAllen on Wednesday night.

Yarely, the 6-month-old daughter of Alfredo and Merlin, was still coughing at the McAllen bus station Wednesday night.
Yarely, the 6-month-old daughter of Alfredo and Merlin, was still coughing at the McAllen bus station Wednesday night.  Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

“I asked for medicine for my daughter, and they wouldn’t give it to me,” Merlin said. “They just said to give her water.” The young mother said it tasted like chlorine.

The migrants held at a new tent city in Donna, 12 miles east of McAllen, reported far better conditions, though the experience varied from migrant to migrant — some saying they got showers and toothpaste, others reporting they did not. Guatemalan migrant Miriam Diaz Lopez and her daughter spent two days in Donna before going to Ursula and said Donna is "cleaner, more hygienic, and they take care of you better."

Another migrant from Jalapa, Guatemala, Byron Humberto Roman Agustin, said he was in a “white tent” and described conditions consistent with photos of the Donna facility; he said he got a shower, toothpaste, access to medical care, square meals and snacks whenever he wanted. Roman Agustin, 35, also said he had a good mattress and stayed in the same room with his 13-year-old son.

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“If you wanted a juice or a yogurt or something, you would just ask for it and they would give it to you at the moment you requested it,” he said. “I heard others saying they were in cages and could only see their kids through the [chain-link] mesh, but we were all together.”

The Tribune also tracked three busloads of migrants from Donna — many of them young children — to a runway at the Brownsville airport. The buses then moved next to a World Atlantic Airlines jet that, according to the flight tracking website FlightAware, flew to Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio. That would be consistent with news reports from May saying that migrants in overcrowded centers are being flown out of South Texas to be processed at Border Patrol facilities that have more capacity.

A group of migrants exit an immigration bus at the McAllen Central Station in downtown McAllen on June 25, 2019.
A young boy is escorted off of an immigration bus by a woman at the McAllen Central Station in downtown McAllen on June 25, 2019.

Left: Migrants exit a bus at the McAllen Central Station in downtown McAllen. Right: A woman escorts a young boy off an immigration bus at the station. Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Regardless of the conditions they faced in processing centers, nearly all of the migrants said they were happy to finally reach their goal of entering the United States, just as Mexico is launching an unprecedented crackdown and making it harder for those who are trying to follow them.

Despite all the privations — the toilet stench, lack of personal hygiene and bad bologna sandwiches — Gary, the Salvadoran migrant from Siguatepeque, couldn’t help but smile. This weekend, at last, he will be rejoining his immigrant mother in Los Angeles.

“I knew that they treated people badly, but we were already mentally prepared to suffer through whatever we had to in order to be with our family,” he said.

Miguel Gutierrez Jr. contributed reporting to this story.