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U.S. holding cells were half-full as migrants sought asylum, documents show

Statistics bely administration's claims that it could not accommodate surge of families

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FILE - In this April 29, 2019, file photo, Cuban migrants are escorted in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, by Mexican immigration officials as they cross the Paso del Norte International bridge to be processed as asylum seekers on the U.S. side of the border.
FILE - In this April 29, 2019, file photo, Cuban migrants are escorted in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, by Mexican immigration officials as they cross the Paso del Norte International bridge to be processed as asylum seekers on the U.S. side of the border. (AP Photo/Christian Torres, File) Photo Gallery

SAN DIEGO — Many U.S. holding cells along the Mexican border were less than half-full, even empty, during an unprecedented surge of asylum-seeking families from Central America, newly unsealed court documents show, raising questions about the Trump administration’s claims that it had to make people wait in Mexico because it didn’t have the means to accommodate them.

Holding cells were no more than half-full at 18 of 24 border crossings on a majority of days between July 2018 and June 2019, according to the analysis of government data. Cells in the Texas cities of Laredo and Brownsville were no more than half-full on nearly nine out of 10 days during the 12-month period. Cells at some smaller crossings were often empty.

Legal advocates for migrants say the figures show that Trump administration officials were making up excuses to keep people from entering the U.S. to apply for asylum.

Customs and Border Protection, in its defense, has long maintained that the number of migrants it can take in at any one time is governed not just by the amount of holding-cell space but by available manpower. And during the surge, the staff was stretched especially thin dealing with priorities deemed more important, such as fighting drug trafficking and inspecting truck cargo.

Also, holding-cell figures do not tell the whole story, a senior official said in the unsealed documents. Some cells are less than full because some migrants must be isolated from others for safety reasons. For example, someone arrested for a crime would be held in a cell alone, as would a family with lice, or migrants with tattoos denoting gang membership.

A federal appeals court unsealed the documents after a request from The Associated Press.

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