McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — In anticipation of an onslaught of migrants arriving at the Southwest border, federal officials are preparing to open a pair of facilities to hold and process some of them.
A facility in remote Carrizo Springs, Texas, could hold 700 unaccompanied migrant youth who cross illegally into South Texas. Federal officials are also opening a 160,000-square-foot tent facility to process migrant families near the town of Donna, Texas.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services expects the hard-sided facility in Carrizo Springs to be ready to accept youth in 15 days, agency officials told Border Report in an email Tuesday. The facility is to only house teens ages 14 to 17, and all will be tested for COVID-19 prior to admittance, officials with the agency’s Office of Refugee Resettlement said. Additional soft-sided facilities could be added to the compound if the need arises, they said.
The Donna tent facility is located on 45 acres and will serve as the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley Sector processing center while the sector’s Centralized Processing Center in McAllen is renovated, a Border Patrol news release on Tuesday said. “The facility is weatherproof, climate-controlled, and is expected to provide ample areas for eating, sleeping, and personal hygiene. The new facility’s design is a considerable upgrade from previous soft-sided facilities,” according to the news release.
This new facility is not located at the same spot where three massive tent structures were built in July 2019 to hold migrants. But that facility was quickly shuttered after then-President Donald Trump’s administration implemented the Migrant Protocols program, or “Remain in Mexico,” which forced all asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico during their U.S. immigration court proceedings.
Border Report last week was the first news outlet to report that a new policy has been implemented by Border Patrol officials in South Texas who are now releasing certain migrants traveling with young children and those with medical conditions into the interior of the United States as long as they promise to appear for their upcoming immigration hearings.
About 1,000 migrants have crossed into South Texas and have been released on their own recognizance by Border Patrol officials during the past week, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat representing South Texas, told Border Report.
This is a stark contrast under the new Biden administration from the Trump administration, which since March had imposed strict border travel restrictions to stop the spread of coronavirus that forbid asylum-seekers from entering U.S. soil.
Officials are expecting waves of migrants coming from Central America and Mexico once word reaches families living south that those who traveled north were released on their own recognizance under a promise to appear in their upcoming immigration court hearings, called a Notice to Appear Own Recognizance order.
Border Patrol officials say the change is caused by an increased flow in migrants coming north and the need to social distance due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“CBP has seen a steady increase in border encounters since April 2020, which, aggravated by COVID-19 restrictions and social distancing guidelines, has caused some facilities to reach maximum safe holding capacity. Per longstanding practice, when long-term holding solutions aren’t possible, some migrants will be processed for removal, provided a Notice to Appear, and released into the U.S. to await a future immigration hearing. As the Administration reviews the current immigration process, balancing it against the ongoing pandemic, we will continue to use all current authorities to avoid keeping individuals in a congregate setting for any length of time,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials said in a statement to Border Report on Tuesday.
A CBP official added that changes in Mexican immigration laws also affect what border agents do north of the Rio Grande.
Cuellar told Border Report that Mexican officials no longer want to accept “tender age” children — those under age 13 — due to safety concerns in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, where there is much drug cartel activity and where the charred bodies of 19 migrants recently were found in a burned car near the town of Carmago.
Mexican officials have denied any change to their policies, but suddenly migrant shelters on the U.S. side of the border are filling up with families released by U.S. Border Patrol agents, who it appears cannot return the youth over the international bridges into Mexico.
HHS officials say unaccompanied teens sent to the Carrizo Springs shelter will not be allowed to leave the facility and they say they won’t have need to as it will be “a self-sufficient site … where they can receive care and services, such as education, medical and mental health care, counseling, recreation, and access to legal services.”
The average hold time for teens will be no longer than 30 days, they said. After which ORR will look for “a suitable sponsor who can care for the child while his/her immigration case proceeds.”
This is the same facility that opened in July 2019 by the Trump administration but was operational for only a couple of weeks prior to being shut down. Now, HHS officials say that due to social distancing requirements, there is a lack of adequate space available nationwide to house all anticipated unaccompanied migrant youth — officially called unaccompanied alien children (UACs). HHS officials said they are reactivating this site as a temporary holding facility to meet the needs.
“ORR must ensure that children can be released from CBP custody in a timely manner. It is therefore prudent to prepare to increase the number of shelter beds available so that ORR continues to be able to accept UAC referrals from CBP in a timely manner. As such, HHS will reactivate the temporary Influx Care Facility (ICF) in Carrizo Springs, Texas, for the potential placement and care of UAC as necessary and in order to comply with the law,” the HHS statement sent to Border Report reads.
The site has remained unoccupied “and on warm status since late July 2019,” HHS officials said. The facility is refurbished from an old camp that accommodated men working in the local oil and gas production industries and is located a two-and-a-half-hour drive southwest of San Antonio in Dimmit County.
Dimmit County has had a surge of coronavirus cases, totaling 1,207 and 19 deaths in this county of just 10,438, according to Texas Health and Human Services.
ORR officials say every teen will be tested for coronavirus prior to entry to the facility, however it is uncertain whether staff or visitors at the facility will be tested.
Border Report asked HHS officials for confirmation that COVID-19 tests would be required of everyone upon entry and received a lengthy email detailing the number of children in its custody that have tested positive but the agency did not answer the question directly.
“ORR has policies in place, based on legal requirements, as well as child welfare best practices, for assigning children to the most appropriate care provider facility,” the agency wrote.
Since March 24, 2020, there have been a total of 1,748 lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases among unaccompanied migrant youth, the agency said. Currently, 103 remain positive for the virus.