Temporary migrant processing center being built

EL PASO — A temporary processing center is being built in Tornillo, Texas, by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to help with an influx of Central American migrants attempting to come to the United States, officials said.

“U.S. Customs and Border Protection is standing up a temporary facility at the Tornillo port of entry to provide additional capacity for family units and unaccompanied children in CBP custody at the ports and stations in the area,” CBP officials said in a statement.

Officials said the center will hold as many as 500 people and will provide for all of the basic needs of the migrants.

“CBP, assisted by contractors onsite, will ensure that all of the basic needs of those in CBP custody are met,” CBP officials said. “CBP will assess the needs to expand the facilities regularly and is prepared to add housing, beds, toilets and bathing facilities as needed. CBP will also regularly assess the need to keep this temporary facility operational based on the volume of people arriving at ports or crossing the border in the El Paso area.

“The facility will be operational within the week, and will provide additional space for those in CBP custody awaiting transfer to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for processing, detention, and/or removal, or to the Department of Health and Human Services,” officials said.

Officials have not provided other details about the facility, which will be near the Tornillo port of entry in southeast El Paso County, along the Mexican border.

A conference call was held Wednesday by CBP officials, several other law enforcement agencies and local leaders to inform the community about the construction of the temporary processing center, officials said.

“What we have been told is that they are opening up a temporary (processing) center and they said it is for people to be more comfortable during their processing, because they (CBP) are so overwhelmed with the number of people entering and need more space to process them,” said Melissa Lopez, executive director of El Paso's Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services.

Lopez said the announcement of the center has raised several concerns for community leaders, including how many people will be held there, how long will the migrants will be kept at the center and how much access attorneys will have to their clients.

“I think one of the biggest concerns is what is the length that people are going to be stuck there,” Lopez said. “Also, I imagine it is going to be difficult for attorneys to get in. I don’t know what kind of access they are going to have. Generally, we don’t get access to clients while they are in CBP custody at the ports. So if people are going to be there for a few days or a few weeks, that is obviously concerning from the perspective of ensuring that they have access to legal counsel.”

She added, “So right now, I think there are a lot more questions than there are answers and definitely significant concerns about it.”

Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House in El Paso, said the large number of refugees coming to the United States is forcing CBP to keep migrants for several days or even weeks in holding cells that are not designed to house people for long periods of time.

“Here is the problem: The holding cells that they have at the ports of entry and Border Patrol substations were designed to simply hold people for a matter of hours while they processed them,” said Garcia, whose agency has helped migrants and refugees for decades. “Usually, if you are Border Patrol and you have these detention facilities to detain people, if you get Maria and her two children, then once you finish processing them, you then put them on a bus and transfer them to a detention center.”

He added, “But when those detention facilities get full, then you have no place to lock them up in, so your options are to release them on their own recognizance or you are going to hold them in the holding cells that are not made to do that. This new location in Tornillo that they are going to get up and running, the purpose of it, to my understanding, is so that you don’t have to keep people in the holding cells.”

Garcia added that he hopes the processing center will provide more humane conditions for detainees.

“Holding people for extended periods of time, holding people in crowded conditions is a real human rights issue,” Garcia said. “So if what Border Patrol, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and immigration is trying to do is alleviate not having to hold them in holding cells and be able to hold them while they work to process and release in a more humane manner, (it) is wonderful. If that is what the purpose is, then it is wonderful. Clearly, it is unimaginable to me that it will not be a very significant improvement.”

The El Paso area has already seen a large increase in migrants from Central America coming to the United States in the past few weeks, Garcia said.

“The surge arrived two or three weeks ago. We have been receiving a 1,000 refugees a week,” Garcia said. “It is really important to understand that when immigration does not have capacity, then they release people under proceedings, so they are released. It is really important for people to know that the people (migrants) that are released have all been processed and they all have been run through the security databases of immigration, FBI and all of that. So the people released are individuals that they have no reason to believe that they pose any threat or risk to the communities they are going to.”

He added, “The reason I emphasize this is because the way the environment is right now, there is going to be no shortage of people that are going to scream that the border is out of control and they are just letting all these people in, which is totally incorrect.”

The proposal by President-elect Donald Trump to build a border wall and tighten border security is not a major factor for the influx of migrants, Garcia said.

“That has been a never-ending discussion, but I don’t hear people mention Trump’s name,” Garcia said of the migrants his agency assists. “People are aware that the United States is making it as difficult as possible for people to get in. There have been very significant deportations on an annual basis. … So the refugees are aware that enforcement is ever increasing.”

He added, “But when you talk to the refugees, I have not heard one bring up Trump. … I don’t get the impression that that is a driving force. … The lives of the refugees is very, very difficult in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. I wish there was some way for people in the United States to realize how difficult life is for these refugees.”

Lopez of the Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services believes that the political tensions involving immigration in the United States might spur some people to attempt to come to the United States ahead of potential heightened security measures. But she said that won't be the main factor leading people to make the often perilous journey from Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Certainly anytime there is something major that happens politically like this election, there is a fear,” Lopez said. “But underlying that fear is the conditions they are living under in their home country. So, for example, if somebody is living in a violent community and they are facing daily physical threats of violence, they may have been thinking about coming to the United States. But then hearing the outcome of the election and hearing the rhetoric from the president-elect may have probably served to hasten their need to come to the United States.”

Follow Aaron Martinez on Twitter: @AMartinez31


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