After months of reports of migrants being crammed into dangerously overcrowded facilities, Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan got some good news during a visit Thursday to one of the Border Patrol’s busiest sectors.
“On May 31, we had over 5,300 people in custody here in El Paso sector. On June 15, that number was reduced down to 3,000. And on July 1, we had just close to 550 in custody,” Chris Clem, deputy chief of the El Paso Border Patrol sector, told McAleenan in a briefing.
Tours of two controversial Border Patrol facilities bore out those numbers. A small group of journalists was allowed to attend but could not take pictures or talk to any migrants.
At El Paso’s Border Patrol Station 1 — which held 1,500 people in May and where Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said last week that detainees had been told to drink from a toilet — only 45 people were now in custody. A large tent set up in early May to house up to 500 people had more government officials than migrants on Thursday.
Officials continued to dispute Ocasio-Cortez’s account during the tour, saying potable water is always available to migrants. Clem made a point of drinking from the water fountain atop a toilet in the cell Ocasio-Cortez visited.
At the Clint Border Patrol station 20 miles southeast of El Paso, only 16 children were in custody on Thursday, down from 700 in May. These are children who arrived at the border without a parent or guardian. A group of attorneys and health professionals said in late June that many children were being neglected at Clint and housed without adequate food, water and sanitation. The Trump administration denied the allegations.
The allegations of mistreatment at Clint have angered people who work there. Lakeisha Muniz, an employee of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in New Jersey, volunteered to come to Clint to help with the border humanitarian crisis. She said the media portrayal of the facility has been untrue.
“It’s not what you guys are thinking or what people are putting out there. I have not even watched the news anymore because what I saw on the news is not the truth,” Muniz said during the briefing for McAleenan, her voice brimming with frustration.
“We are working hard together to make sure that everyone in there has food, has clothes, are brushing your teeth, taking showers. We’re doing this,” she said.
On Thursday, 15 boys were housed in two of the Clint facility’s nine holding cells. Finding Dori played on video screens above each cell. The lone girl – a child of 2 or 3 – was held by a contract “monitor,” child-care professionals who began working at Clint about two weeks ago.
The monitors are responsible for some basic care and hygiene for the children, with four at a time working on an eight-hour shift.
The children who previously had been held at Clint were turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for their care while awaiting placement with sponsors, officials said.
“We are working hard to take care of kids in our custody,” McAleenan said after touring the Clint facility.
Families and single adults who had been held at overcrowded Border Patrol and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities in recent weeks have gone on to one of three fates – released to the interior of the United States while their immigration cases are decided; turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be detained while their cases are heard; or sent back across the border under Migrant Protection Protocols, commonly called Remain in Mexico, to await a decision on their immigration claims.
Officials on Thursday didn’t provide a breakdown on what happened to the almost 19,000 people held in CBP custody a few weeks ago. But the number of people sent back to Mexico has been increasing by 2,000 a week recently, with the total expected to surpass 20,000 by the end of this week, Mexican immigration officials said.
Thursday’s briefing and tour offered reporters a rare glimpse inside Border Patrol holding facilities. Reporters weren’t allowed to visit the facilities when holding cells were filled to standing-room only, as reported by DHS’s inspector general.
DHS reported this week that the number of people taken into custody at the border in June was just over 104,000, down from 144,000 a month earlier but still more than double the numbers of the same month a year earlier.
In his briefing to McAleenan, Clem cited increased Mexican cooperation at the northern border, particularly in stopping large groups of Central American migrants from crossing. Mexico agreed to stepped-up border enforcement in early June to head off President Trump’s threat to impose tariffs on Mexican goods.
In the El Paso sector, which includes far west Texas and all of New Mexico, 28 groups of 100 or more migrants were apprehended after crossing the border and surrendering in May – a total of 6,831 people. In June, El Paso sector agents encountered only four such groups, totaling 753 people.
Clem said Mexico has been able to prevent transportation hubs used by transnational criminal organizations to move tens of thousands of people a month from Guatemala to the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Mexico was able to start putting their own personnel, their version of the National Guard, out there to interdict this and to stop this along the route. So we no longer have buses just showing up at Antelope Wells [in remote southwest New Mexico] at 2 o’clock in the morning and dropping people off,” Clem said.
McAleenan agreed: “I think that’s the number one and most salient factor.”
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