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Border Patrol closes outdoor holding pen

Hundreds of migrant parents and children had been waiting at a makeshift processing center set up under the Paso del Norte International Bridge in El Paso this past week. Customs and Border Protection shut down the controversial pen Saturday night and began transferring those migrants to other facilities around the region, which includes New Mexico. (Angela Kocherga/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

EL PASO – The high-profile, open-air holding pen filled with migrant parents and children under the Paso del Norte International Bridge is empty. Customs and Border Protection officials shut down the pen Saturday night and began transferring migrant parents and kids to facilities in the region, including New Mexico.

Border Patrol is also using highway checkpoint holding cells for families until they can be processed by agents, which includes taking information from the migrants and doing criminal background checks. Most are families from Central America seeking asylum who cross the border illegally and turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents.

“The number of apprehensions has continued to increase steadily and the decision was made to relocate to a location with more space and more shelter capability,” according to a statement from a CBP spokesman Sunday evening.

“Although aliens that were being held in the transitional area are being moved, the building adjacent to Paso Del Norte will continue to serve as a processing facility,” said the spokesperson.

According to CBP, the open-air holding pen was temporarily needed because Border Patrol facilities were overcrowded and well above capacity. CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan on Wednesday said the border had reached a “breaking point” in the El Paso sector, which includes all of New Mexico. The commissioner estimated that in March alone, Border Patrol would take 55,000 families and an additional 40,000 unaccompanied minors into custody.

Commissioner McAleenan held a news conference in El Paso in front of the border fence near the pen last Wednesday. Afterward, reporters and photographers were escorted by CBP media officials to see the families held behind a chain-link fence and razor wire. Photos of the pen made national news, and television reporters aired video or used the pen as a backdrop for live reports about the migrant crisis.

Democratic members of Congress criticized the Trump administration for keeping parents and young children in the open-air pen where they were sleeping on the ground under Mylar blankets.

“Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has been unwilling or unable to come up with smart and humane solutions,” Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, tweeted Thursday. “Her incompetence and lack of leadership is hurting El Paso and our country. It’s time for her to resign.”

Nielsen tweeted Friday, “We face a cascading crisis at our southern border. The system is in freefall. @DHSGov is doing everything possible to respond to a growing humanitarian catastrophe while also securing our borders, but we have reached peak capacity & are now forced to pull from other missions.”

A congressional delegation led by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., chair of the House Judiciary Committee, was set to visit the outdoor pen Sunday. But Border Patrol moved the parents and children Saturday night as overnight temperatures dipped into the 40s and the area was under a wind advisory with some gusts forecast to reach 50 mph.

Critics question whether the Trump administration used the temporary pen filled with migrants to bolster the president’s national emergency declaration to fund his border wall rather than dealing with the humanitarian crisis.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint Saturday with the Department of Homeland Security’s acting inspector general demanding an investigation of conditions in the pen.

“Border Patrol’s detention of people in outdoor pens forcing families and children to sleep in the dirt for days is just the latest cruelty inflicted on asylum-seekers by this administration,” said Shaw Drake, policy counsel for the ACLU Border Rights Center on Sunday.

In the complaint, the ACLU notes CBP’s budget has grown to more than $16 billion this year. “It is inconceivable that the agency does not have the resources, if appropriately allocated, to ensure humane treatment of migrants in their custody,” the ACLU complaint states.

There are only three family detention centers operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and those facilities are usually filled to capacity. A court order limits detaining children for more than 20 days so most families are released on their own recognizance and given a date to appear in immigration court. Parents are usually fitted with an electronic ankle monitoring device. A backlog of cases in immigration court means some wait months or even years for a decision on whether they will be granted asylum.

The Department of Homeland Security expanded the Migrant Protection Protocols, originally called “remain in Mexico,” to the El Paso area more than a week ago. The policy, which was first put into effect on the California border, requires asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico until a judge in the U.S. decides their claim. So far, at least six asylum-seekers in the El Paso area have been sent to back to Mexico, according to Escobar.