Trump Wants More Immigrant Detention Centers Like This One

Officials say migrants and asylum seekers would be held no more than 72 hours at the site, and that the facility is temporary.

By Reynaldo Leaños Jr.January 27, 2017 9:30 am|

It’s a cold, overcast day in Donna, a Texas border town of almost 16,000 people. It’s a stone’s-throw from the international bridge connecting Donna with the town Rio Bravo in Tamaulipas, Mexico.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Richard G. Kerlikowske is welcoming news outlets to a new $3.8 million immigration holding facility.

When President Donald Trump signed his executive action on immigration this week – much of the focus was on the border wall. But the same document talks about new detention facilities. It says Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly should allocate resources to immediately construct facilities to detain “aliens” at or near the Mexican border.

The fastest and cheapest way to do that is to build tent-like structures like the one Kerlikowske is christening in Donna.

This is the part of the border that saw a big influx of families and unaccompanied children in 2014 – most from Central America. About 50,000 unaccompanied minors and another 50,000 families crossed the border here. Immigration officials say they had a hard time keeping up.

“We did not have really adequate facilities,” Kerlikowske says. “We didn’t have provisions for healthcare. We didn’t really even have provisions for food.”

Reynaldo Leaños Jr./Texas Standard

Commissioner Richard Gil Kerlikowske speaks to the media about a new holding facility in Donna, Texas.

Kerlikowske says now immigrants are turning themselves in at ports of entries.

“I think we’re addressing this situation,” he says. “It’s professional in a way that lends itself to great respect to the government of the United States.”

Donna Sifford is the port director at the Tornillo Port of Entry in El Paso.

“Once [migrants] come into the intake, they’ll be offered a shower,” Sifford says. “The showers are separated. Males and females.”

She’s taking the time to talk about separate facilities for men and women in part because that’s been a problem in the past, leading to lawsuits over sexual abuse.

Reynaldo Leaños Jr./Texas Standard

Facilities where undocumented immigrants are allowed to shower once they enter the Donna Holding Facility.

Beyond the showers, there were structures with high ceilings and walls covered with a white canvas-like material – similar to what you’d see in a circus. Also like a circus, there was a room scattered with what looked like large cages. Sifford says those would hold the undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers for no longer than 72 hours. Then they’d be turned in to the appropriate governmental agency.

That area was surrounded by a chain-link fence, but other parts weren’t.

“Now the following three pods, which are not completed yet and we won’t go down there yet, will be completely open,” Sifford says. “Those will be for family units, usually for females with children.”

Reynaldo Leaños Jr./Texas Standard

One of the areas where undocumented immigrants will be housed for no more than 72 hours.

Law enforcement officials don’t often use tent-like structures, but they aren’t exactly new. César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández teaches law at the University of Denver. He used to be an immigration attorney in the Rio Grande Valley. He says, historically, these tent-like facilities are plagued with problems.

“It’s very difficult to keep an enclosed tent-structure that’s sitting in the hot south Texas sun at a tolerable temperature,” García Hernández says.

The same is true in winter.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons shut down a similar facility in Raymondville, Texas in 2015. García Hernández says this happened after inmates protested the conditions and left the facility uninhabitable. The ACLU published a report saying the facility was overcrowded, bug infested and its sewage constantly overflowed.

García Hernández says he wouldn’t be surprised if the new facility in Donna started experiencing similar issues.

Back at the tour, Reynaldo Diaz, the acting patrol agent in charge of the McAllen Centralized Processing Center, says this facility isn’t meant to be permanent.

“It is built only as a temporary facility and when the need is no longer there it’ll go away,” Diaz says.

But García Hernández says immigration facilities have a track record of not following through with those promises. That’s because once they’re up and running there are many interests at play that can be difficult to break away from:

“Everything from the correctional staff jobs to the third party contractors that supply food, medical care, laundry services,” García Hernández says.

Donna Sifford says U.S. Customs and Border Protection will continue to reassess the need for this facility on a regular basis, but she says when the assessments will take place has yet to be decided.

This week’s order from President Trump for new detention facilities could mean facilities like this one continue to pop up along the border.