DONNA, Texas – More than 500 migrant children were packed into plastic-walled rooms built for 32 people, sitting inches apart on mats with foil blankets Tuesday at the largest U.S. Customs and Border Protection holding facility for unaccompanied children.
Overall, CBP’s main child processing center, a compound of white tents in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, held over 4,100 migrants, more than 3,400 of them children who traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border alone and the rest of them families. It is designed for 250 people under guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Biden administration allowed journalists to see conditions for the first time since the facility opened Feb. 9 amid a spike in families and unaccompanied children crossing the border.
It was a grim picture.
A 3,200-square-foot space had been divided into several rooms for 32 children each under CDC guidelines, each separated by thick plastic walls instead of the chain-link fence used by previous administrations. Despite the health recommendations, one of the “pods” held nearly 700 kids, another had nearly 600 and others had just above 500. Everyone wore masks, but COVID-19 tests aren’t done unless they show symptoms.
Doors to the rooms were open for free movement but there was little room to roam and no one to play games. Most children just sat on the ground close together, chatting quietly. Some were wrapped in foil blankets.
Children, most of them between 13 and 17, are separated by age. Families occupied a separate pod that was less crowded than the jam-packed rooms for older children.
A room for “tender age” children from 3 to 9 years old consisted of a walled playpen with mats on the floor and far more space than the eight pods for older children. An 11-year-old boy cared for his 3-year-old sister, and a 17-year-old cared for her newborn.
“I’m a Border Patrol agent. I didn’t sign up for this,” Oscar Escamilla, acting executive officer of the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector, said while looking at the younger kids.
Children are processed in the tent facility in the town of Donna before being taken to longer-term care facilities run by U.S. Health and Human Services and then placed with a family member, relative or sponsor.
About two dozen of some 270 children being transferred to HHS midday tested positive for COVID-19 – the only time they are tested unless they exhibit symptoms earlier. Escamilla said the overall positivity rate at the Donna facility was about 14 percent.
The Border Patrol is apprehending far more children daily than HHS is taking, leading to a severe backlog. The Border Patrol is not supposed to detain children for more than three days, but HHS lacks space.
More than 2,000 kids have been at the Donna facility for more than 72 hours, including 39 for more than 15 days. One child had been there 20 days. The average stay was 133 hours.
About 250 to 300 children enter the Donna facility daily and far fewer leave, a “lopsided” difference that Escamilla said was leading to more crowded conditions. It has held as many as 4,600 migrants.