The government is putting up more tents to hold migrants, but will it be enough?

Texas Tribune News

The new tent city at the Customs and Border Protection station in Northeast El Paso on Monday, April 29, 2019.
The new tent city at the Customs and Border Protection station in Northeast El Paso on Monday, April 29, 2019.
Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune

EL PASO — Even before the White House submitted an emergency request to Congress this week for $4.5 billion to help manage the record number of migrant families crossing the border, the federal government began building two tent facilities on the Texas-Mexico border to house migrants.

Both facilities in El Paso and in the Rio Grande Valley city of Donna are designed to house up to 500 undocumented immigrants, most of them asylum seekers, and will cost about $36.9 million through the end of August to build and operate, according to federal documents.

The facilities — which Border Patrol officials said could open any day — are intended as processing centers for migrants who are apprehended or turn themselves in and are not meant to be long-term detention centers, U.S. Border Patrol spokesperson Ramiro Cordero said. They will initially only house families.

“We’ve over exceeded our capacity and we need to have this place so we can keep people in humane places and transfer them in and out” he said.

But whether the facilities are likely to make a significant impact on the government’s growing struggle to process and house the thousands of asylum seekers — most of them families from Central America — surrendering to U.S. Border Patrol agents every week is unclear.

“I don’t know, because it changes every day,” Cordero said when asked if the agency will need even more space to hold migrants. “What if tomorrow we only get a hundred? Then is this too much? We’ve got to deal with what we have right now and that’s what we’re doing.”

In El Paso, the government has erected two large tent structures adjacent to a Border Patrol facility on the northeast side of the city on 1.2 acres of land. The larger facility will house immigrants in four different sections that can hold 125 people. Each has bathrooms, sinks, guard towers and 24-hour video surveillance. There will be at least one trained doctor and nurse or other assistant on the premises at all times, Cordero said.

Cordero said that from Oct. 1, when the federal government’s fiscal year started, through late April, agents in the El Paso sector had apprehended about 94,000 people. That’s compared to 13,000 during the same time frame last fiscal year. The same thing is happening in the Rio Grande Valley, where agents announced late last month that the number of apprehensions since October, more than 164,000, exceeded the 2018 fiscal year total of 162,262 apprehensions.

A Thursday media tour of the facilities came two days after the White House asked Congress for an additional $3.3 billion for humanitarian assistance, $1.1 billion for border operations and about $375 million for National Guard and Pentagon operations, the Washington Post reported Wednesday. That’s on top of the $8 billion the president requested in next year’s budget for border barriers and the $6 billion he sought when he declared border security a national emergency.

Tents erected next to Border Patrol station in El Paso are designed to hold up to 500 migrants.
Tents erected next to Border Patrol station in El Paso are designed to hold up to 500 migrants.
Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune

The government also operates two family detention facilities south of San Antonio in Dilley and Karnes City, but in March the government said it planned to phase out family detentions at the Karnes City facility and instead house only adults, the Washington Post reported. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials told the Tribune on Thursday that as of April 1, the Karnes facility, with a capacity for 830, is housing only adult women on a temporary basis. The agency said Karnes currently holds 678 women, while Dilley has 1,083 people in custody — less than half of its 2,400-person capacity.

Meanwhile, another planned project that was welcomed by government officials and the immigrant rights community has stalled.

In March, The Trump administration proposed building a processing center in El Paso that would have housed about 800 migrants in a former 400,000-square-foot warehouse on El Paso’s west side.

The new center was aimed at reducing the need for makeshift shelters like the temporary enclosure and military-style tent that Customs and Border Protection erected beneath El Paso’s Paso Del Norte International Bridge in March. The facility was closed just weeks after it opened and migrants were later housed in a tent erected in the parking lot of the CBP building at the same port of entry.

At the time, officials said the new site could be operational by the end of spring or early summer.

But Ruben Garcia, the director of the El Paso-based Annunciation House, which operates a network of migrant shelters across the city, said the proposed center has gotten bogged down in controversy.

“It got caught up in politics and it was postponed,” he said. “It’s postponed [again] and now here we are. And I am now hearing reports that it may be still a year away.”

Customs and Border Protection spokesperson Roger Maier said the facility was still in the works but “it was taking longer than expected for a number of reasons.”

The tents, he added, are the agency’s “quick response to that, so we’ll have something for the time being.”

The El Paso business community complained that the Trump administration was fast-tracking the processing center without seeking input from the community. Jon Barela, the CEO of the Borderplex Alliance, a nonprofit focused on promoting business and economic development in Ciudad Juárez, El Paso and New Mexico, said the community should not support a project without knowing how migrants would be treated.

“We have all seen photos and videos of the conditions that children and families are subjected to within these warehouse style facilities,” Barela said in a written statement issued in late March. “If a processing center is to open in our community, it must be well-equipped and prioritize the humanity of migrants, and that requires careful planning and time.”

David Jerome, the president and CEO of the El Paso Chamber of Commerce, added: “At a time when our region is experiencing tremendous growth and economic development, we cannot allow for this new processing center to disrupt the momentum and positive economic energy in El Paso. The proposed processing center should NOT be placed near our schools, businesses, and residential neighborhoods.”

Both groups joined a community organization called Action El Paso urging El Pasoans to sign an online petition opposing the project. As of Thursday it had garnered 2,000 signatures.

A spokesperson for the BorderPlex Alliance said on Wednesday the organization hasn’t heard any updates from the Department of Homeland Security about the project.

The stalemate has put more pressure on Garcia and the rest of the non-profit and faith-based communities to figure out how to house a growing number of migrants who are released from federal custody. Last week, Garcia announced the opening of a new shelter in a former warehouse that can hold up to 500 people with plans to expand its capacity to as many as 1,500 when more improvements are made and pass inspections.

The rent on the building, about $30,000 a month, has been provided by the Abundant Living Faith Center in El Paso for the next three months. Garcia said he hoped opening the center would end or decrease the Annunciation House’s practice of renting hotel rooms when the various shelters in the area are full.

“The numbers [of migrants being released] between El Paso and Las Cruces are in the thousand-per-day range,” he said. “This [new shelter] affords us the opportunity to do some of both, to close down some of the hotels that we are using while at the same time increasing the capacity” at the shelters.

But Garcia said there is still need for more space and implored the region’s religious communities to do more. The Annunciation House’s network of shelters includes several churches that have offered space for migrants.

If every church [in El Paso and Las Cruces would] house 20 refugees one day per week, he said, “we would have more than enough space.”