No toothbrushes or showers, kids coughing all night: Migrants describe conditions inside border facilities
Central American migrants are seen inside an enclosure where they are being held by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), after crossing the border between Mexico and the United States illegally and turning themselves in to request asylum, in El Paso, Texas, March 28, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

They don’t shower or brush their teeth for days on end. They watch their sick kids cough and cry through the night. And some of them brave toilets so foul, one migrant said, that kids can’t help but throw up inside of them.

These are some of the descriptions provided during interviews this week with more than a dozen migrants held by U.S. border officials and then released to a Catholic shelter in the Rio Grande Valley, ground zero in the unprecedented surge of immigrant families crossing the southern border.

“They don’t have the humanitarian conditions for people to be there,” said Gary, a 33-year-old migrant from Siguatepeque, Honduras, who would only give his first name. “There were more than 200 of us in a single cage — seated on the floor, standing, however we could fit.” He said the stench inside overflowing toilets was so bad it made him gag and caused children to vomit.

“The bathrooms are full, they aren’t cleaning them regularly,” he said.

Some of the women and children were allowed to bathe. Gary’s wife and 7-year-old son, for example, bathed once during their four days inside. Gary, and most of the other men interviewed, said they never got to change out of the filthy clothes they wore when they crossed the border.

Many of those interviewed by The Texas Tribune were held at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Central Processing Center in McAllen, one of the two facilities that volunteer attorneys recently described as dangerously overcrowded and unable to provide “safe and sanitary” conditions as required by the 1997 federal court settlement commonly known as the Flores agreement. The lawyers also described horrid conditions in tiny Clint, just outside El Paso.

The U.S. Border Patrol Central Processing Center, colloquially known as Ursula, in McAllen on June 28, 2019.

The U.S. Border Patrol Central Processing Center on Military Highway in McAllen on June 28, 2019.

Left: The U.S. Border Protection Central Processing Center colloquially known as "Ursula." Right: Another U.S. Border Protection Central Processing Center is located on Military Highway in McAllen. This facility has tents within its parameters.  Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

But that’s not the only facility struggling to provide basic necessities, some migrants said.

Two Angolans interviewed at a San Antonio migrant shelter said they were sent to a facility in Del Rio in West Texas where they couldn’t bathe or brush their teeth during a two-day stay — a testament to how overwhelmed federal authorities are up and down the border. Left with just $2, they were still trying to get bus tickets to Portland, Maine, as of Friday afternoon.

“We were in prison. For two days, we didn’t take a bath, we couldn’t clean ourselves, we couldn't brush our teeth. The way we got there was the way we left,” said a 43-year-old Angolan migrant who gave his middle name, Evaristo; he said he crossed from the Mexican border city of Ciudad Acuña into Del Rio this week with his wife and three children.

Migrants wait outside a makeshift center in downtown San Antonio where people are given food and a bag with basic hygiene products, then escorted to a nearby shelter to sleep for the night.
Migrants wait outside a makeshift center in downtown San Antonio where people are given food and a bag with basic hygiene products, then escorted to a nearby shelter to sleep for the night.  Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

On the other hand, several migrants gave mostly positive reviews of the big “white tent” they stayed in at the newest processing facility in Donna, near McAllen — demonstrating that conditions also can vary wildly from one center to the next, and in some cases, from one migrant family to the next.

“We were well taken care of,” said Guatemalan migrant Francisca Hernandez, 44, after stepping off a chartered bus from Donna and heading to the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center in downtown McAllen. Although neither she nor her twin teenage girls said they got baths or changes of clothes over the 48 hours they spent in Donna, they slept on mattresses and had clean bathrooms and plentiful and decent food.

The migrants are sent to the CBP processing facilities after crossing the border and being apprehended or turning themselves in to agents. Most of the migrants traveling as part of a family seek out the first uniformed officer they can find and request asylum. Once they are processed, most are released with instructions to appear later in immigration court, then shuttled to the McAllen bus station, where chartered buses filled with migrants arrived like clockwork during the day this week.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which includes the Border Patrol, said it could not comment or research any specific allegations unless the Tribune provided the agency with names, alien registration numbers, and times and dates of the alleged treatment.

But in a written statement provided by CBP, an official said “all allegations of civil rights abuses or mistreatment in CBP detention are taken seriously and investigated to the fullest extent possible.”

“U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) leverages our limited resources to provide the best care possible to those in our custody, especially children. As DHS [Department of Homeland Security] and CBP leadership have noted numerous times, our short-term holding facilities were not designed to hold vulnerable populations and we urgently need additional humanitarian funding to manage this crisis,” the official said. “CBP works closely with our partners at the Department of Health and Human Services to transfer unaccompanied children to their custody as soon as placement is identified, and as quickly and expeditiously as possible to ensure proper care.”

One CBP official pushed back on the migrants’ descriptions, saying that reporters were able to see for themselves on a recent media tour that the Central Processing Facility has “medical personnel, has food, clothing, shower facilities and laundry facilities.” The CBP official requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

None of the migrants interviewed knew the names or precise locations of the facilities where they stayed. The Texas Tribune tracked chartered buses from both the Central Processing Center and Donna to the McAllen bus station, making it possible to connect the firsthand accounts of many of the migrants to specific facilities.

An immigration bus carrying migrants departs the U.S. Border Patrol Central Processing Center known as Ursula in McAllen on Thursday. The bus will drop-off the migrants at the McAllen Bus Station.
An immigration bus carrying migrants departs the U.S. Border Patrol Central Processing Center known as Ursula in McAllen on Thursday. The bus will drop-off the migrants at the McAllen Bus Station.  Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Their descriptions also match photos of the giant warehouse-like facility on Ursula Avenue — chain-link cells or, as they put it, “cages,” in the middle of a cavernous facility. Most would only give their first names for fear of jeopardizing their asylum cases or getting harassed by federal authorities.

“If you’re able to sleep two hours, you’re lucky,” said Kevin, 21, who had been in the Ursula center for two days and said he never got a bath, toothbrush or toothpaste.

Ananias, 42, was in a cell — “like a dog’’ — at the same center, with his son Gerson, 16. He said they had to sleep in their wet clothes and never got clean ones, let alone toothbrushes.