Photos from inside a US Customs and Border Protection tent facility in Donna, Texas, reveal the crowded conditions unaccompanied immigrant minors are being held in at a time when the Biden administration is struggling to find bed space for the rising number of children crossing the border.
The photos, taken by Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat, offer a rare glimpse of conditions inside such Border Patrol facilities, which are currently housing just under 4,900 unaccompanied immigrant children. Axios first reported on the images taken by Cuellar.
The issues with overcrowding stem from the rising number of unaccompanied children arriving at the border and CBP’s inability to transfer them to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which doesn’t have enough bed space. HHS has been housing thousands of children in its system of shelter or emergency influx facilities.
There were just under 4,900 unaccompanied immigrant children in border custody late this weekend, as the population in HHS custody continued to grow to more than 11,000, according to government data reviewed by BuzzFeed News. The number of transfers from border custody to HHS custody had increased, with nearly 600 going over to HHS care in one day, according to the data. The Biden administration has tried to relieve the crowding in border custody in part by increasing the transfers to HHS custody.
Many of the children in CBP custody have been there past the 72 hours the government is allowed to legally hold them in border facilities.
DHS has not given the media or attorneys, who are able to visit these facilities as part of a court settlement, the ability to tour these facilities.
Lawyers who interviewed some of the children at the Donna tent facility told BuzzFeed News that some minors were held for as many as eight days in crowded areas without showers or the ability to call their families.
All of the children interviewed by attorneys had been in the custody of the border enforcement agency for at least five days, over the three-day limit they’re allowed to be in CBP custody under law.
CBP did not respond to an immediate request for comment.
"I have said repeatedly from the very outset that a Border Patrol station is no place for a child and that is why we are working around the clock to move those children out of the Border Patrol facilities, into the care and custody of the Department of Health and Human Services that shelters them," Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told CNN on Sunday.
In 2019, visits to Border Patrol facilities revealed children were being held in dirty, overcrowded, and unsanitary conditions. Attorneys who visited a Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas, described children caring for infants and toddlers, a lack of access to soap and toothbrushes, and inadequate food, water, and sanitation.
On a call with reporters last week, senior Biden administration officials said the HHS was racing to open up shelter space, but noted it would take months and was not a solution for the current situation.
Instead, the agency has turned to emergency intake sites, like a convention center in Dallas and another facility in Pecos, Texas, to try to move children out of CBP custody faster.
In February, more than 9,400 unaccompanied immigrant children were encountered by US border authorities.
The Trump administration started the practice of expelling unaccompanied immigrant minors encountered at the border by US border authorities, citing a public health code called Title 42. The administration was blocked by a federal judge from continuing the practice in November. An appeals court lifted the judge’s order in late January, but by then a new administration had taken office and the Biden White House decided not to continue the practice of expelling unaccompanied immigrant children.
However, the Biden administration has continued to expel some immigrant families and adults whom border officers encountered at the border, citing the same health code as the Trump White House.
Before the judge forced the Trump administration to allow unaccompanied children to seek asylum in the US, the government was quickly sending these children back to dangerous Mexican border cities or flying them back to conditions they fled.