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U.S. border officials temporarily close Texas warehouse where chain-link ‘cages’ for migrants became a symbol of mistreatment

The McAllen Central Processing Center will reopen in 2022 after a major renovation, Customs and Border Protection officials said.

Single-adult male detainees stand at a Border Patrol station in McAllen on July 12, 2019.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have shut down the South Texas warehouse where chain-link enclosures were deplored as “cages” during the Trump administration’s crackdown on migrant families and children. The facility will undergo renovations until 2022, CBP officials said.

The chain-link partitions will be removed, and the warehouse will be redesigned to provide detained migrants with more humane conditions, CBP officials said. The renovations will take 18 months or longer, leaving border agents without a large-volume facility if a new migration surge occurs next year.

“The new design will allow for updated accommodations, which will greatly improve the operating efficiency of the center as well as the welfare of individuals being processed,” Thomas Gresback, a spokesman for the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector, told The Washington Post.

The Obama administration opened the facility in 2014 after a record number of Central American families and children began streaming into South Texas, leaving U.S. agents and border stations dangerously overcrowded. CBP obtained a large warehouse and hastily converted it into a clean, air-conditioned processing center to accommodate the surge. Inexpensive chain-link fencing was used to create partitions in the cavernous space, but its grim appearance came to symbolize the dehumanizing treatment of migrants in U.S. custody.

The warehouse has been mostly empty this year, as CBP implemented emergency public health measures in March that allow agents to quickly “expel” more than 90% of border crossers back to Mexico. Last week, a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to halt the practice of expelling underage migrants.

During pre-pandemic times, migrant families and children who were taken into custody in the Rio Grande Valley after crossing illegally into the United States typically were taken to the CPC warehouse. Their personal and biometric information was recorded into government databases, and they would sometimes spend several days or more inside the facility, sleeping on mats as they waited for authorities to determine whether they would be transferred to a longer-term detention facility, returned to Mexico or released into the United States.

The partitions were used to separate different demographic groups — such as keeping teenage boys apart from mothers with infants. The renovation is likely to replace the chain link with clear plastic dividers, and officials said the new facility will provide more recreation and play areas for children, as well as more permanent kitchen, infirmary and shower facilities.

The CPC’s capacity will be reduced from 1,500 to 1,100, Gresback said.

Department of Homeland Security officials and migration experts have warned that the incoming Biden administration risks facing a new migration crisis next year. Mexico and Central America have been battered by the economic squeeze of the coronavirus pandemic, and catastrophic flooding and crop damage this fall from multiple hurricanes.

Last month, the number of migrants taken into custody along the Mexico border jumped to 69,237, up 21 percent from September. It was the highest one-month total since February 2019.

President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign promises to reverse the Trump administration’s restrictive approach to immigration enforcement have also raised fears that smuggling organizations will use the anticipation of weaker enforcement to recruit clients.

The Rio Grande Valley remains the busiest area for illegal migration along the entire U.S. southern border, but the bare-bones detention cells of its Border Patrol stations were designed to hold adults, not families and children. Those stations became so overcrowded during the 2014 surge that families were left for hours in the sweltering exterior garages of the stations, in conditions so poor that the Obama administration was forced to look for an indoor, climate-controlled facility, settling on the warehouse.

“It was the best solution at the time,” said Rodolfo Karisch, who retired in January as the Border Patrol chief of the Rio Grande Valley sector. Karisch said the decision to remove the chain link and renovate the facility was a sign that the Border Patrol had heeded the public outcry and asked “What else can we do to make it better?”

When the families and children began crossing the border in large numbers again in 2018, the Trump administration responded with a “Zero Tolerance” crackdown that intentionally separated thousands of migrant children from their parents. The children were sent to shelter facilities and dormitories that the Department of Health and Human Services oversaw, while the adults were kept in immigration jails.

When CBP officials allowed television crews inside the Central Processing Center during the surge to draw attention to the humanitarian crisis, the facility’s chain-link fencing triggered an immediate uproar. Opponents of the Trump administration’s immigration and border policies latched onto the phrase “kids in cages” as a way to attack what they saw as inhumane treatment of people seeking refuge in the United States.

During the second presidential debate in October, then-candidate Biden denounced the president’s family separations as “criminal,” to which Trump responded: “Who built the cages, Joe?” — blaming the Obama administration.

In 2018, CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan pushed for the removal of the chain-link fencing, and he advocated for the creation of new border facilities that would be more appropriate for families and children. Congress blocked proposals for a processing center in the El Paso area, but lawmakers in 2019 approved a $4.5 billion emergency spending bill to set up temporary migrant shelter facilities, during a year when the Border Patrol made nearly 1 million arrests and detentions.

CBP likely would need to set up short-term tent facilities again in the event of a new migration wave, officials said. “CBP consistently revaluates future operational requirements to support the safe and legal processing of aliens who have entered the United States illegally,” Gresback said.

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