Asylum Ban Adds Strain to Facilities 07/18 06:42
SAN DIEGO (AP) -- A new policy to deny asylum to anyone who shows up on the
Mexican border after traveling through another country threatens to exacerbate
overcrowding at severely strained U.S. immigration detention centers and
makeshift holding areas.
Photos and video of Vice President Mike Pence's visit Friday to McAllen,
Texas, showing men crammed behind chain-link fences offered the latest glimpse
into squalid conditions at Customs and Border Protection facilities. Women are
being held in smaller tents at the station.
The Border Patrol housed 900 people in an area with capacity for 125 in El
Paso, Texas, according to a Department of Homeland Security's internal watchdog
report on an unannounced visit in May. Inspectors saw detainees standing on
toilets to gain breathing space. Agents described detainees being held in
standing-room-only cells for weeks.
A sharp drop in illegal border crossings, coming during a seasonal decline
as summer heat sets in, has eased pressure temporarily. The Border Patrol has
fewer than 10,000 people in custody, down from 19,000 in May, according to a
U.S. official who was not authorized to share the figures publicly and spoke on
condition of anonymity.
The Border Patrol's Rio Grande Valley sector, the busiest corridor for
illegal crossings, was the only one of nine sectors on the Mexican border over
capacity on Wednesday, with about 6,000 detainees, the official said. El Paso
has plummeted to 500 detainees.
Still, the space crunch is daunting and holding people who are denied asylum
until they are deported can only pose more challenges.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement operates long-term detention centers
that are far better equipped, but that agency is also heavily burdened. It is
holding more than 53,000 people, hovering near an all-time high and above its
budgeted capacity of 45,274, including 2,500 spots for families.
ICE, responding to scarce detention space for families, has released more
than 200,000 family members since October under a new practice that does not
allow time to make travel arrangements while in custody. It currently houses
311 people in families.
ICE said Wednesday that it constantly reviews detention requirements and
"Ensuring there are sufficient beds available to meet the current demand for
detention space is crucial to the success of ICE's overall mission," the agency
said in a statement.
CBP officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The dramatic policy change took effect Tuesday, denying asylum to anyone who
must pass through Mexico to reach the U.S. by land. It will have the biggest
impact on Guatemalans and Hondurans, who account for most Border Patrol arrests
and tend to travel in families.
If it survives legal challenges, the policy would affect people from any
country traveling through Mexico unless they sought asylum in at least one
other country and were denied. There are exceptions for victims of "a severe
form" of human trafficking, as well as other forms of humanitarian protection
that are similar to asylum but have a much higher bar to qualify.
Linerio Gonzalez and Ana Paolini of Venezuela were on a list of migrants
waiting in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, to claim asylum in the United States. They
were eager to enter the United States despite confusion about how the policy
would affect them.
"It drives you to desperation," said Gonzalez, 24.
"You hear a lot of things, but we don't know," said Paolini, 20.
Hours after it went into effect, the policy drew two lawsuits in federal
court, one in San Francisco and one in Washington, D.C. Both lawsuits ask for
an order to immediately halt the policy while it is challenged in court. The
American Civil Liberties Union and other groups requested a hearing Thursday in
the San Francisco case.
Those who lose asylum bids would be placed in fast-track deportation
proceedings and flown to their home countries. That's where challenges may
It usually takes several days to arrange travel documents and flights for
Central Americans, and the only ICE family detention centers are in Texas and
Pennsylvania. It is more difficult (and expensive) to arrange travel to faraway
countries like Cameroon, whose people have been arriving at the border to seek
asylum after flying to Ecuador and traveling through seven other countries.
Cuba, whose people have been seeking asylum in El Paso and Laredo, Texas, is
labeled one of nine "recalcitrant" countries in the world by the U.S.
government for its unwillingness to take back its own citizens, according to a
Congressional Research Service report in November. Cubans tend to fly to Panama
and then travel overland through five countries or fly to Nicaragua and go by
land through three countries.
The administration has been expanding temporary detention space, which would
offer relief. CBP began construction last week on a holding center with tents
for 2,500 single adults near El Paso, with plans to open by early August,
spokesman Roger Maier said. The site in Tornillo, Texas, was used last year to
house more than 2,000 unaccompanied children.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services just opened a facility to
detain children at Carrizo Springs, Texas, at the site of a former "man camp"
for oilfield workers. The holding facility can accommodate up to 1,300 children.