DONNA, Texas (Border Report) — Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas returned to the controversial migrant processing center Friday in the South Texas border town of Donna, and for the first time in several visits spoke with news media after touring the facility.
Speaking to two dozen reporters in a covered outdoor recreational area lined with astroturf inside the sprawling processing center compound, Mayorkas repeatedly praised the Biden administration for reducing the number of unaccompanied migrant children in DHS care there.
He said the number of unaccompanied migrant children at the facility is now 334, which is down substantially from 3,700 on April 2. Mayorkas added that the average time children are being held is 24 hours, down from 133 hours on March 28 at the height of the recent immigration surge from Mexico into South Texas.
He called it a “dramatic change” and said it is possible due to enhanced partnerships between several government agencies, such as the U.S. Border Patrol; Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA); U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
“The president directed an all-of-government approach and we have certainly accomplished that,” Mayorkas said. But he added they are just getting started.
“The plan will take time to execute and it will be difficult to do so but this is what we do: We do the difficult work. We know how to do it,” Mayorkas said.
Mayorkas was joined on Friday by five Democratic congresswomen, including two from Texas, who pledged to take back to Congress what they saw on Friday.
U.S. Rep. Nanette Barragán, of California, said she last toured the facility three weeks ago when there were over 2,200 unaccompanied migrant youth and families packed into a few tents, with little social distancing despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
After touring on Friday, she called it a “remarkable difference.”
Barragán said signs have been placed explaining to children their rights: to make a phone call, to ask for food or other needs.
“It’s great to see that the administration and the secretary is here on the ground and willing to listen to what needs to happen,” Barragán said.
Border Report asked Mayorkas if the 334 children in custody were all the unaccompanied migrant youth on the compound, or if there were children in other tents on the compound under the care of HHS officials.
He answered: “The numbers I provided with respect to the children who are here in the Donna facility is an accurate representation of the number of children who are here in the Donna facility.”
Earlier this week, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who is vice chairman of the House Appropriations Homeland Security, said many of the unaccompanied migrant youth have been moved from Border Patrol-run tents to HHS-run tents on the same site.
“All they’re doing is they’re moving kids from one tent to the other tent and saying, ‘Oh, they’re not in the Border Patrol (custody),’ but they’re right next door,” Cuellar said. “They’re just next door in HHS.”
A Border Patrol spokeswoman told Border Report after Friday’s news conference that the current facility has two sections — called Donna 1, and Donna 2. And they are building a Donna 3 section, which will be partitioned off with a fence and have a separate gate and that area will be run by HHS.
We have reached out to HHS for clarification and will update this story if information is received.
A Border Patrol station is no place for a child.”DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas
But Mayorkas was clear in his remarks that he believes the children are safer and better cared for in HHS custody, because that agency is set up for the needs of youth.
“We have re-engineered the process for the treatment of unaccompanied children and the transfer of them to Health and Human Services shelters where they belong,” Mayorkas said. “A Border Patrol station is no place for a child.”
U.S. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, of California, chairwoman of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, said coordination between Border Patrol and HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement previously “did not exist.” And not only are those agencies now working together to quickly sort and process the children, but FEMA officials also are on-site helping.
Last month, the federal government put a call out encouraging all federal workers to sign up for up to 120 days of helping in processing centers with migrant youth.
In addition, Roybal-Allard said “some of the barriers” that had held up reunifications between children and their parents “is moving much more smoothly because under the secretary’s guidance we now have these coordinated efforst between the various agencies that had not existed.””
But she added: “There still needs to be a lot done.”
And along with her colleagues lined up beside Mayorkas, Roybal-Allard urged Congress to work across the aisle to pass comprehensive immigration reform to stop the flow of “irregular immigration.”
Rep. Linda Sánchez, of California, is the sponsor of Biden’s U.S. Citizenship Act, which offers pathways to citizenship for millions of migrants and is currently stalled in a divided Congress.
U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar said border towns like her hometown of El Paso, Texas, tend to get a bad rap and too much focus during immigration surges. And she criticized the mostly Republican-led congressional delegations that have been touring border areas recently in West Texas and South Texas since March.
“The crisis has been our inability to adequately manage vulnerable populations,” Escobar said. “And an unwillingness by some to pass laws.”
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com