EL PASO, Texas (AP) — About 50 asylum seekers stood this week in a circle near a bridge between the U.S. and Mexico to hear an American attorney explain what would happen to them when they entered U.S. custody.
The attorney, Jodi Goodwin, told them they would probably end up at one of the Border Patrol’s smaller stations, which migrants call “la hielera” — Spanish for icebox because of their cold temperatures.
Goodwin advised them to wear their heaviest clothing or borrow clothes from someone else, and to eat a hearty meal before crossing the bridge. In a carrying voice, she repeated in Spanish, “Eat well and dress well.”
The advice reflects reality on the border, where a lack of space means some immigrants must sleep on floors in Border Patrol stations, while others are held in military-style tents. One tent facility is next to an El Paso bridge, and the government will soon open two more.
The newest tent cities — in El Paso and in the Rio Grande Valley — will hold 1,000 parents and families, expanding the Border Patrol’s capacity to hold and process the surge of immigrants who have arrived in recent months and overwhelmed immigration authorities.
The tents will offer portable showers, recreation areas and sleeping quarters that are divided by gender and by families and children traveling alone. Detainees will sleep on mats.
The tents are set to operate through the end of the year, at a cost of as much as $37 million. A contractor in Rome, New York, obtained the bid to build the tents, which the government calls “soft-sided” shelters.
The Border Patrol’s El Paso sector has become the epicenter of the influx of immigrant families from Central America.
On Tuesday alone, agents arrested around 1,100 migrants in the El Paso sector, including 424 who crossed in Sunland Park, New Mexico, according to Border Patrol spokesman Ramiro Cordero. In March alone, the agency apprehended more than 100,000 immigrants, including 53,000 family members.
The situation has drawn agents away from their traditional duties of patrolling the border and forced Immigration and Customs Enforcement to refuse to hold immigrants because it does not have enough detention space. ICE is dropping large groups of immigrants at bus stations and cities, including Phoenix, San Antonio, Texas, and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
But before the immigrants are handed over to ICE or released, the Border Patrol must process them, and the agency is struggling to keep up.
In recent weeks, immigrants have been forced to sleep in hastily constructed tents on top of gravel under a bridge in El Paso. Critics decried the conditions as inhumane and corroborated accounts of migrants who said that they were held too long and did not have access to bedding while sleeping in the cold.
“For far too long, El Paso – America’s new Ellis Island, has lacked adequate temporary processing facilities to address the increase in the number of asylum-seeking families arriving at our doorstep,” said El Paso Rep. Veronica Escobar.