EL PASO, Texas — Hundreds of migrants being held in an outdoor camp underneath a bridge that connects the US and Mexico told BuzzFeed News that had they known they’d face such harsh conditions at the Texas border before they left, they may not have made the journey.
The immigrants, held behind a chain-link fence topped with razor wire, said they’ve endured cold and windy nights sleeping on bare, rocky dirt underneath the Paso Del Norte International Bridge that links Ciudad Juarez and El Paso. Most of the immigrants had nothing but thin, mylar blankets. Above, roosting pigeons dropped feces on them.
US immigration officials said they have been overwhelmed by the influx of migrant families trying to enter the country, filling facilities to capacity, and forcing officials to temporarily house people under the bridge in what they describe as a transitional shelter.
On Thursday morning, as cars and travelers went back and forth across the two border cities on the bridge above, a group of immigrant men and a young boy talked and pointed to the razor wire that encircled them. Behind them was a line of portable toilets. On the floor were the metallic-looking plastic blankets they were given to brave the shivering cold.
Reporters were able to view immigrants inside the pen for a brief time before Border Patrol agents asked that they leave the area. Several immigrants at a nearby Greyhound bus station said they spent nights under the bridge before they were released pending scheduled appearances before immigration judges.
N. Rosales, a woman from Honduras who crossed into the US with her son, spent about three days under the bridge until she was moved to a Border Patrol holding cell at the adjacent processing facility. She asked that her full name or age not be used, fearing retaliation from immigration authorities.
Officials installed a large tent underneath the bridge, but it wasn’t large enough to hold everyone. Those who couldn’t fit inside the tent slept outside on the ground littered with rocks, Rosales said. Whether they were inside or outside the tent, Rosales said people had to sleep on the gravel.
Immigration agents would wake them up before sunrise for breakfast, she said.
“I see it as a punishment for entering the country illegally,” Rosales told BuzzFeed News. “Time moved so slow, it seemed like an eternity.”
Four other immigrants at the Greyhound station in El Paso who were waiting for a bus to Miami, Chicago, or Boston corroborated the description of the conditions, but declined to use their names out of fear of authorities.
Andrew Meehan, CBP assistant commissioner for public affairs, said Border Patrol had issued warnings for several months that "the immigration system is broken" and at "critical capacity levels" along the southern border.
"CBP’s facilities and manpower cannot support this dramatic increase in apprehensions of family units and unaccompanied children," Meehan said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. "USBP temporary holding facilities were simply not designed to process and care for a population of this size and of this demographic."
Meehan said the number of families and children has forced CBP to seek every possible temporary solution to house, process, and care for people in their custody. The agency said it was providing full-time, onsite medical providers, as well as blankets, access to shower facilities, water, three meals a day with additional snacks, restrooms, and access to telephones.
Nearly every sector across the southwest border has exceeded their capacity, Meehan said. As a result Border Patrol has begun processing "non-criminal" families for immediate release under their own recognizance.
Roger Maier, a spokesperson for CBP, previously said officials set up the enclosure and tent underneath the bridge because of the large number of apprehensions in the area.
“As illegal aliens arrive at the processing facility, they are placed at the ‘tent’ to await their turn to be processed,” Maier said in a statement. “This tent serves only as a transitional shelter and is not a temporary housing facility. It was established within the last month.”
The images of women, men, and children detained by authorities under the Paso del Norte Bridge were seen after Kevin McAleenan, the commissioner of CBP, held a press conference nearby to discuss the “unprecedented humanitarian crisis” the agency was facing as more unaccompanied minors and a record number of families arrive.
Immigration officials said they’ve been overwhelmed by the number of Central American children and families they are holding in facilities originally built to detain single Mexican immigrants.
In the past, CBP would turn over migrants apprehended at the border to Immigration and Customs Enforcement — but both agencies said they don’t have the space to hold the number of people they’re seeing at the border.
As a result, officials said, Border Patrol has been forced to directly release migrant families in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley instead of waiting for ICE to pick them up. A Border Patrol official said the agency was planning to expand the practice of directly releasing migrant families to other areas of the border in El Paso, Yuma, San Diego, and possibly Del Rio because of overcapacity at facilities.
M. Gonzalez, a Honduran who crossed the border with his teenage brother and asked that his full name not be used, said riding on “The Beast” — a system of freight trains migrants use to traverse Mexico quickly — was easier than the conditions they faced under the bridge. The train is infamous for the number of lives and limbs it has claimed from migrants who fall off or are attacked by criminals.
“It’s hell there,” Gonzalez told BuzzFeed News. “The bridge is one of the worst things I’ve ever experienced.”
Gonzalez, who spent about four days under the bridge, said the wind would funnel underneath it at night, making it feel dramatically colder. Their lips would chap and crack, he said, pointing to the pieces of peeling skin on his lips.
Droppings from the pigeons perched on the inside of the bridge fell on detainees, he said. Gonzalez said kids were constantly crying and some looked like they were about to faint.
“I regretted coming,” Gonzalez said. “I’m not sure I would’ve come if I had known.”
During the days they could hear shouts from people they assumed were walking overhead.
“You’re not alone.”
“You’re with God.”
Others were less supportive.
“You’re not welcomed.”
“Go back to your country.”
Not everything was so horrible. The portable toilets were clean, the walls around them disinfected, and the water at the plastic portable sinks to wash their hands was refilled.
Rosales and Gonzalez said that before they made the journey to the US, they didn’t hear from friends or family who had successfully entered about the conditions they faced in detention.
Rosales thinks people are too ashamed to describe their experience. Then again, she said, some migrants are so desperate that warnings about conditions in immigration detention would do little to stop them.
Gonzalez said he had been told by undocumented people in the US it was safe to make the journey and nothing bad would happen to him.
“They said they let people with children pass,” Gonzalez said.
After spending days under the bridge, Gonzalez said he would be forthcoming with others back home about his journey.
“I’d tell people what it’s like,” he said. “If they want to risk it, that’s on them.”