Government to house more immigrants in tents at the border

EL PASO, Texas (AP) — About 50 asylum seekers stood this week in a circle near a bridge between the U.S. and Mexico to hear an American attorney explain what would happen to them when they entered U.S. custody.

The attorney, Jodi Goodwin, told them they would probably end up at one of the Border Patrol's smaller stations, which migrants call "la hielera" — Spanish for icebox because of their cold temperatures.

Goodwin advised them to wear their heaviest clothing or borrow clothes from someone else, and to eat a hearty meal before crossing the bridge. In a carrying voice, she repeated in Spanish, "Eat well and dress well."

The advice reflects reality on the border, where a lack of space means some immigrants must sleep on floors in Border Patrol stations, while others are held in military-style tents. One tent facility is next to an El Paso bridge, and the government will soon open two more.

The newest tent cities — in El Paso and in the Rio Grande Valley — will hold 1,000 parents and families, expanding the Border Patrol's capacity to hold and process the surge of immigrants who have arrived in recent months and overwhelmed immigration authorities.

The tents will offer portable showers, recreation areas and sleeping quarters that are divided by gender and by families and children traveling alone. Detainees will sleep on mats.

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National Border Patrol Council president Brandon Judd
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National Border Patrol Council president Brandon Judd
UNITED STATES - MARCH 09: Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, is interviewed by CQ in Washington, March 9, 2017. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 27: (L-R) Director of Research at the Center for Immigration Studies Steven Camarota, President of the National Border Patrol Council Brandon Judd, Director of the Remembrance Project Maria Espinoza, Agnes Gibboney, mother whose son was killed by an undocumented immigrant, and Seth Stodder, Secretary for Boarder of Immigration and Trade Policy, testify during a hearing before the Subcommittee on National Security of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee April 27, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The subcommittee held a hearing on 'The Border Wall: Strengthening our National Security.' (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 27: President of the National Border Patrol Council Brandon Judd testifies during a hearing before the Subcommittee on National Security of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee April 27, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The subcommittee held a hearing on 'The Border Wall: Strengthening our National Security.' (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 12: (L-R) Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven McCraw, National Border Patrol Council President Brandon Judd, Center for Immigration Studies fellow Andrew Arthur and Truman Center President and CEO Michael Breen are sworn in before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's National Security Subcommittee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill April 12, 2018 in Washington, DC. The witnesses gave testimony about a caravan of Central American migrants that drew President Donald Trump's ire and was stopped as it moved through Mexico earlier this month. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 12: National Border Patrol Council President Brandon Judd (L) and Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven McCraw visit before testifying to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's National Security Subcommittee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill April 12, 2018 in Washington, DC. The witnesses gave testimony about a caravan of Central American migrants that drew President Donald Trump's ire and was stopped as it moved through Mexico earlier this month. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 12: (L-R) Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven McCraw, National Border Patrol Council President Brandon Judd, Center for Immigration Studies fellow Andrew Arthur and Truman Center President and CEO Michael Breen testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's National Security Subcommittee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill April 12, 2018 in Washington, DC. The witnesses gave testimony about a caravan of Central American migrants that drew President Donald Trump's ire and was stopped as it moved through Mexico earlier this month. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump listens to Brandon Judd, President of the National Border Patrol Council, speak about border security in the briefing room at the White House in Washington, DC, on January 3, 2019. - President Trump gave a statement on the government shutdown and border wall in what was his first time behind the podium in the White House briefing room. (Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP) (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, speaks while U.S. President Donald Trump listens during a White House press briefing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. Trump congratulated Nancy Pelosi on her 'tremendous achievement' while he also pushed for funds for a border wall. Photographer: Tasos Katopodis/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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The tents are set to operate through the end of the year, at a cost of as much as $37 million. A contractor in Rome, New York, obtained the bid to build the tents, which the government calls "soft-sided" shelters.

The Border Patrol's El Paso sector has become the epicenter of the influx of immigrant families from Central America.

On Tuesday alone, agents arrested around 1,100 migrants in the El Paso sector, including 424 who crossed in Sunland Park, New Mexico, according to Border Patrol spokesman Ramiro Cordero. In March alone, the agency apprehended more than 100,000 immigrants, including 53,000 family members.

The situation has drawn agents away from their traditional duties of patrolling the border and forced Immigration and Customs Enforcement to refuse to hold immigrants because it does not have enough detention space. ICE is dropping large groups of immigrants at bus stations and cities, including Phoenix, San Antonio, Texas, and Albuquerque, New Mexico.

But before the immigrants are handed over to ICE or released, the Border Patrol must process them, and the agency is struggling to keep up.

In recent weeks, immigrants have been forced to sleep in hastily constructed tents on top of gravel under a bridge in El Paso. Critics decried the conditions as inhumane and corroborated accounts of migrants who said that they were held too long and did not have access to bedding while sleeping in the cold.

"For far too long, El Paso - America's new Ellis Island, has lacked adequate temporary processing facilities to address the increase in the number of asylum-seeking families arriving at our doorstep," said El Paso Rep. Veronica Escobar, who took fellow Democrats on tours of the bridge setting.

To some critics, the new tents in El Paso and Donna, Texas, are an improvement.

Besides providing extra space, the tents also offer a better setting for agents to process immigrants. The data entry at Border Patrol processing centers can take one to two hours per migrant, as agents enter names, take fingerprints and run background checks. Agents also record the addresses where migrants will live in the U.S., and emergency medical technicians perform cursory health screenings.

In March, the Border Patrol closed down checkpoints around El Paso used for drug enforcement. Agents now bring migrants to Border Patrol offices near the checkpoints and use the computer terminals there to process migrants.

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Migrants tear-gassed at the US-Mexico border
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Migrants tear-gassed at the US-Mexico border
A migrant girl from Honduras, part of a caravan of thousands traveling from Central America en route to the United States, cries after running away from tear gas thrown by the U.S. border control near the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico in Tijuana, Mexico November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Migrants run from tear gas launched by U.S. agents, amid photojournalists covering the Mexico-U.S. border, after a group of migrants got past Mexican police at the Chaparral crossing in Tijuana, Mexico, Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018. The mayor of Tijuana has declared a humanitarian crisis in his border city and says that he has asked the United Nations for aid to deal with the approximately 5,000 Central American migrants who have arrived in the city. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
Three Honduran migrants huddle in the riverbank amid tear gas fired by U.S. agents on the Mexico-U.S. border after they and a group of migrants got past Mexican police at the Chaparral border crossing in Tijuana, Mexico, Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018. The mayor of Tijuana has declared a humanitarian crisis in his border city and says that he has asked the United Nations for aid to deal with the approximately 5,000 Central American migrants who have arrived in the city. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
Migrants run from tear gas launched by U.S. agents, amid photojournalists covering the Mexico-U.S. border, after a group of migrants got past Mexican police at the Chaparral crossing in Tijuana, Mexico, Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018. The mayor of Tijuana has declared a humanitarian crisis in his border city and says that he has asked the United Nations for aid to deal with the approximately 5,000 Central American migrants who have arrived in the city. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
Central American migrants -mostly Hondurans- cover their faces next to the bordering Tijuana River near the El Chaparral border crossing in Tijuana, Baja California State, Mexico, after the US Border Patrol threw tear gas to disperse them after an alleged verbal dispute, on November 25, 2018. - US officials closed the San Ysidro crossing point in southern California on Sunday after hundreds of migrants, part of the 'caravan' condemned by President Donald Trump, tried to breach a fence from Tijuana, authorities announced. (Photo by Guillermo Arias / AFP) (Photo credit should read GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP/Getty Images)
Tear gas thrown by the US Border Patrol to disperse Central American migrants -mostly Hondurans- after an alleged verbal dispute is seen near the El Chaparral border crossing in Tijuana, Baja California State, Mexico, close to the S-Mexico border, on November 25, 2018. - US officials closed the San Ysidro crossing point in southern California on Sunday after hundreds of migrants, part of the 'caravan' condemned by President Donald Trump, tried to breach a fence from Tijuana, authorities announced. (Photo by GUILLERMO ARIAS / AFP) (Photo credit should read GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP/Getty Images)
A photojournalist is surrounded in a cloud of tear gas released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) after migrants, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America, attempted to illegally cross the border into the United States from Tijuana, Mexico November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
A migrant, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America, covers his face after being affected by tear gas released by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) after hundreds attempted to illegally cross into the U.S from Mexico from Tijuana, Mexico November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States, run from tear gas released by U.S border patrol, near the border fence between Mexico and the United States in Tijuana, Mexico, November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
A migrant reacts from tear gas thrown by the U.S. border patrol near the fence between Mexico and the United States in Tijuana, Mexico, November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Duenes
Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands traveling from Central America en route to the United States and journalists flee tear gas released by U.S. border patrol near the fence between Mexico and the United States in Tijuana, Mexico, November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis
Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States, return to Mexico after being hit by tear gas by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) after attempting to illegally cross the border wall into the United States in Tijuana, Mexico November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
U.S. soldiers and U.S. border patrols fire tear gas towards migrants, part of a caravan of thousands traveling from Central America en route to the United States, from the U.S.side of the border fence between Mexico and the United States in Tijuana, Mexico, November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
Migrants and members of the media run from tear gas released by U.S border patrol near the fence between Mexico and the United States in Tijuana, Mexico, November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
Migrants cover their faces, as they run from tear gas, thrown by the U.S border patrol near the fence between Mexico and the United States in Tijuana, Mexico, November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
A migrant covers his face as he runs from tear gas, thrown by the U.S border patrol, near the fence between Mexico and the United States in Tijuana, Mexico, November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
Migrants run from tear gas, thrown by the U.S border patrol, near the border fence between Mexico and the United States in Tijuana, Mexico, November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
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In a statement, the Border Patrol said the tents were built "to support efforts to process, care for and transfer the unprecedented number of families and unaccompanied children crossing the border illegally each day in a humane way, consistent with our border security mission and our American values."

The Border Patrol is supposed to keep people in custody for no more than three days, but migrants are sometimes detained for longer. Goodwin said she had spoken in the last week to a Guatemalan man who had been in a "hielera" for 12 days. The Border Patrol stations that house the "hieleras" will continue being used.

In some ways, the tents are better than the iceboxes, Goodwin said. "But that's not saying much."

Tent facilities previously used to detain migrants in Texas have often lacked adequate space or facilities, said Goodwin, a longtime attorney in Harlingen, Texas. A separate tent city near El Paso housed more than 2,700 migrant children before being shut down in early January amid security concerns.

It's unlikely that the new tent facilities will allow the Border Patrol to reopen the checkpoints or to stop reliance on the "hieleras" or the more hastily constructed, smaller tents.

The new 500-person tent in El Paso will only help the Border Patrol keep up, Cordero said, and the checkpoints can only be reopened if the flow of migrants slows down.

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Merchant reported from Matamoros, Mexico.

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