Creating a Crisis on the Border

Caution migrants wikipedia

California road sign, from Wikipedia, public domain.

“Immigration detention centers nearly empty as Trump claims border crisis”

“ICE Faces Migrant Detention Crunch as Border Chaos Spills Into Interior of the Country”

These two headlines illustrate the way the Trump administration is creating—or at the very least, intensifying—the “crisis” at the border. 

Border detention facilities, run by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) are meant for very short term detention, no more than 72 hours. Then migrants should be released to await hearings, or transferred to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody for longer-term detention. Because that isn’t happening, CBP detention centers are massively and inhumanely crowded, while ICE detention centers have empty beds. Pacific Standard Magazine explains:

“ICE and Border Patrol operate entirely separate detention apparatuses. When Border Patrol apprehends people crossing the border (or when asylum seekers cross legally but without papers), Border Patrol transfers them to CBP’s short-term detention. These CBP-specific facilities are only made to house people for up to 72 hours before they’re transferred to ICE custody….

“Having the physical space or number of beds is only part of the equation. As I reported earlier this year, when we talk about the number of “detention beds” ICE maintains, we’re not just talking about mattresses. Detention takes a lot of resources: ICE needs to feed detained people, hire guards and service workers, and manage the bureaucracy.

“Thus, when an ICE official says the agency is operating at capacity, or has run out of “beds,” this can mean that the agency has run out of funding resources, not actual space. Currently, Congress funds ICE to detain an average daily population of 40,520 people. But that’s an average: Sometimes ICE is over that number, sometimes below. So it makes sense that the population in a place like Dilley might fluctuate significantly even as the agency is at its technical limit of “beds.”

Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) visited CBP detention facilities on the border, and describes the miserable conditions there:

“The detained migrants call it the “hielera,” Spanish for icebox.

“It is a metal-sided detention room which the detainees complain is kept painfully cold. Border Patrol insists it is kept cold for health reasons.

“The sign above the door reads “Capacity: 35.” On April 12, when I visited this El Paso, Texas, Border Patrol facility, there were close to 150 men in the room.

“The large, heavy glass window on the cell gives you a clear view of the detainees. They stand shoulder to shoulder. But for benches along the walls, which accommodate a small number, there is no room for the men standing to sit or lie down. Meals are provided to the standing migrants to eat in the cell….

“Next to the “Capacity: 35” icebox are other smaller cells similarly crowded with male detainees, and next to those are cells crowded with women. One of the women’s cells had a sign reading “Capacity: 16.” I counted about 75 women in the cell. Some mouthed the word “help” as they made eye contact through the window. Some are mothers nursing their babies.”

Meanwhile, DHS forges ahead with plans for more detention facilities. In addition to tents in two Texas locations, they have considered housing migrant children in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“The proposal to house migrant children from the Southwest border there has not gained traction, perhaps because of the optics of housing young people adjacent to terrorism suspects, according to one official who had seen the proposal but was not authorized to discuss it publicly….

“A detention crunch that homeland security officials described as already dire threatened last week to become worse with the announcement by Attorney General William Barr that the administration would soon begin mandatorily detaining additional asylum seekers, a move that, if implemented, could put thousands more in custody each month.”

The Guardian explains that ICE facilities still have open beds, even while CBP facilities are hugely overcrowded:

“There were nearly 2,000 empty beds in two detention centers last week, with a facility in Dilley, Texas, at 26% capacity and a facility in Berks county, Pennsylvania, at 19% capacity. On 1 April, the third family shelter was temporarily changed into a facility for adult women only.

“This, combined with reports of aid agencies at the border overwhelmed by the food, shelter and medicine needs of migrants, has advocates warning that the government could be manufacturing a crisis to justify its hardline immigration policies….

None of this is necessary. Asylum seekers can be released into the country to await hearings. Alternatives to detention work, and work well. A new report from the National Immigrant Justice Center investigates and describes models of community-based programming as an alternative to detention of immigrants.

“The use of immigration detention has been repeatedly proven inefficient, ineffective, and at odds with human welfare and dignity. Throughout the world, governments and non-governmental organizations are operating a growing variety of alternatives to detention. Evidence-based studies consistently prove community-based programs to be safer than a detention-based approach, vastly less expensive, and far more effective at ensuring compliance with government-imposed requirements. Most importantly, community-based alternatives offer a framework for refugee and migrant processing that is welcoming and allows families and communities to remain together.”

The current ICE system uses a privatized, for-profit model run by a wholly-owned subsidiary of Geo Group, a model that “has been implemented primarily as a surveillance program for people, including asylum seekers, who previously were unnecessarily detained.”

The National Immigrant Justice Center report concludes:

“The United States’ immigration detention system and those who operate it commit daily, well-documented abuses with impunity, with little chance of effective or meaningful oversight. Immigrants and their loved ones continue to suffer the harmful consequences of a system that focuses solely on detention, without regard for human rights. That system is dehumanizing, expensive, ineffective, wasteful, and at odds with values and traditions of welcoming and accepting immigrants. Instead of continuing these harms, the United States should end the use of immigration detention and pursue the development of holistic community-based programming already at work in communities here in the United States and throughout the world.”


About Mary Turck

News Day, written by Mary Turck, analyzes, summarizes, links to, and comments on reports from news media around the world, with particular attention to immigration, education, and journalism. Fragments, also written by Mary Turck, has fiction, poetry and some creative non-fiction. Mary Turck edited TC Daily Planet,, from 2007-2014, and edited the award-winning Connection to the Americas and AMERICAS.ORG, in its pre-2008 version. She is also a recovering attorney and the author of many books for young people (and a few for adults), mostly focusing on historical and social issues.
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