Shelters, Prisons, Concentration Camps: Where Does the United States Put Migrants?

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Figure 1: Overcrowding of Adult Females in PDT Holding Cell Observed by OIG on May 8, 2019

As refugees continue to move from intolerable situations in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, even Mexico, and other countries around the world, The Trump administration doubles down on its no-room-for-anyone policies. That leaves refugees out in the cold—or this month, out in the heat, stranded in cages under the sweltering Texas sun, marooned in Mexico, stuffed into overcrowded cells, and now sent to Fort Sill, site of an internment camp for. Japanese Americans during World War II. The tattered pretense of  respect for U.S. and international law no longer offers any cover: the United States is violating human rights purposefully, intentionally, and on a massive scale.

An op/ed writer in the Los Angeles Times looks at recent revelations from El Paso and calls the detention center there a concentration camp:

Photos from a Border Patrol processing center in El Paso showed people herded so tightly into cells that they had to stand on toilets to breathe. Memos surfaced by journalist Ken Klippenstein revealed that Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s failure to provide medical care was responsible for suicides and other deaths of detainees. These followed another report that showed that thousands of detainees are being brutally held in isolation cells just for being transgender or mentally ill.

“Also last week, the Trump administration cut funding for classes, recreation and legal aid at detention centers holding minors — which were likened to “summer camps” by a senior ICE official last year. And there was the revelation that months after being torn from their parents’ arms, 37 children were locked in vans for up to 39 hours in the parking lot of a detention center outside Port Isabel, Texas. In the last year, at least seven migrant children have died in federal custody….

“If we call them what they are — a growing system of American concentration camps — we will be more likely to give them the attention they deserve. We need to know their names: Port Isabel, Dilley, Adelanto, Hutto and on and on. With constant, unrelenting attention, it is possible we might alleviate the plight of the people inside, and stop the crisis from getting worse. Maybe people won’t be able to disappear so easily into the iceboxes. Maybe it will be harder for authorities to lie about children’s deaths.”

Descriptions and photos from a report by the Department of Homeland Security’s own Inspector General confirm the conditions:

“According to PDT Border Patrol processing facility staff, the facility’s maximum capacity is 125 detainees. However, on May 7 and 8, 2019, Border Patrol’s custody logs indicated that there were approximately 750 and 900 detainees on site, respectively. TEDS standards provide that “under no circumstances should the maximum [cell] occupancy rate, as set by the fire marshal, be exceeded” (TEDS 4.7). However, we observed dangerous overcrowding at the facility with single adults held in cells designed for one-fifth as many detainees (see Figures 1 through 3). Specifically, we observed:

  • “a cell with a maximum capacity of 12 held 76 detainees (Figure 1);
  • “a cell with a maximum capacity of 8 held 41 detainees (Figure 2); and
  • “a cell with a maximum capacity of 35 held 155 detainees (Figure 3).”


Problems go far beyond overcrowding, awful as that is.

“The Department of Homeland Security inspector general found expired food and dilapidated bathrooms during unannounced visits to four immigrant detention facilities in 2018, according to a report released Thursday.

“The kitchen at one facility was in such poor shape — with open packages of raw chicken leaking blood over refrigeration units — that the kitchen manager was replaced while the IG inspection was ongoing….

“The IG observed unsanitary conditions in the bathrooms at the Adelanto and Essex facilities during their surprise visit. “[W]e observed detainee bathrooms that were in poor condition, including mold and peeling paint on walls, floors, and showers, and unusable toilets,” the report reads.

“Other issues raised include spoiled food, lack of provisions, like lotion, that is required for detainees, and strip searches with no documented justification. The report notes that ICE detainees “are held in civil, not criminal, custody, which is not supposed to be punitive.”

With Texas heat in the 90s and 100s, the Border Patrol is still holding people outdoors, unsheltered.

“Rosendorf described it as “a human dog pound”—one hundred to 150 men behind a chain-link fence, huddled beneath makeshift shelters made from mylar blankets and whatever other scraps they could find to shield themselves from the heat of the sun. “I was able to speak with detainees and take photos of them with their permission,” Rosendorf said in an email. “They told me they’ve been incarcerated outside for a month, that they haven’t washed or been able to change the clothes they were detained in the entire time, and that they’re being poorly fed and treated in general….

“Both Rosendorf and Representative Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, said they were told by detainees that some people have been held more than a month outdoors.”

Inadequate or restricted medical care has been identified as one of the reasons for increasing immigrant deaths. in custody. Recent deaths include Johanna Medina, a trans woman denied medical care  while in custody after legally asking for asylum at a border checkpoint, and a 40-year-old Honduran woman in Border Patrol custody at Eagle Pass, Texas. Carlos Hernandez Vasquez, a 16-year-old from Guatemala became the sixth. minor to die in custody or after being discharged to a hospital since September—after a decade with no children dying in custody.

“By the time you’re 16 years old, you have great immunity, and you shouldn’t be dying so quickly,” said Dr. Nizam Peerwani, the Tarrant County medical examiner in Fort Worth, Texas, and an adviser for the advocacy group Physicians for Human Rights.

“Peerwani said Carlos’ rapid deterioration raised questions about whether he may have had potential symptoms including a fever, body aches, or breathing trouble before the Border Patrol says he reported being sick.

“He should have been taken to a medical facility or clinic instead of remaining in detention, Peerwani said.”

The problems do not end when immigrants get to hospitals for treatment:

“As apprehensions of migrants climb at the southwest border, and dozens a day are taken to community hospitals, medical providers are challenging practices — by both government agencies and their own hospitals — that they say are endangering patients and undermining recent pledges to improve health care for migrants….

“The problems range from shackling patients to beds and not permitting them to use restrooms to pressuring doctors to discharge patients quickly and certify that they can be held in crowded detention facilities that immigration officials themselves say are unsafe. Physicians say that needed follow-up care for long-term detainees is often neglected, and that they have been prevented from informing family members about the status of critically ill patients. Agency vehicles parked conspicuously near hospital entrances, health providers say, are also stoking fear and interfering with broader immigrant care.” 

Refugees report other mistreatment while in custody. Some asylum applicants. who have  been sent back to Mexico to await a court date say that border officials took their identification and papers and refused to return them.

“Jeffrey came to Tijuana from Honduras in November, and he entered the U.S. in early April to seek asylum. That day, he was assigned a court date—May 7—and was then sent to the hielera, where he spent five days before being sent back to Tijuana. When Jeffrey showed up at court on May 7, though, the judge didn’t have him scheduled for a hearing. (Guerra said this is now happening more frequently, due to lack of coordination between DHS and the courts.) Jeffrey was ordered back to Mexico, but DHS agents had taken his backpack, holding his passport, humanitarian visa, and documents he would need to prove the danger he faced in Honduras. Jeffrey told the officials he wouldn’t return to Tijuana without the backpack, at which point he was returned to the ice box for four more days. CBP then sent him back over the border with an empty backpack. His new court date is scheduled for August, ten months after his arrival in Tijuana, but he no longer has the documents he needs to request asylum. He doesn’t even have a way to prove his identity.”

That also happens in detention facilities, according to the DHS official report:

We also observed staff discarding all other detainee property, such as backpacks, suitcases, and handbags, in the nearby dumpster (see Figure 5). Border Patrol personnel told us that these items might be wet, have bugs, and be muddy, and, therefore, presented a “biohazard.”


And the administration plans to address these problems?

“A Department of Homeland Security official said the president’s supplemental request includes funding to address the costs of migrant medical care in two areas. …”

“Combined, they represent a little more than 2 percent of the total request. The majority of the request would be spent to increase shelter space and capacity.”

Translate that: “shelter space” means more prisons for immigrants.

The administration is also sending more U.S. military forces to the border. Here’s the plan:

“Members of the military deployed near the U.S.-Mexico border have been assigned to spend a month painting a mile-long stretch of barriers to improve their “aesthetic appearance.”…

“Some barriers along the southwestern border, including in Nogales, have been painted white, a color which border officials say makes it easier for them to detect migrants compared to the typical brown color. Last month, however, The Washington Post reported that President Trump was pressing officials to paint the barriers black so that they would absorb heat and become too hot for migrants to climb. CBP has not specified what color the Calexico border fences will be painted.













ICE lied about Johanna Medina’s death.

“In a statement to Rewire.News, ICE said Medina “was first encountered by immigration officials on April 11 while illegally entering the United States from Mexico at the Paso Del Norte Port of Entry.” Seeking asylum is not illegal, and a person can only request asylum from within the United States.

“Medina waited nearly three months in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, for the opportunity to request asylum at an official border crossing….

“When a person dies in ICE custody, the agency issues a press release about their passing and, eventually, a private company conducts a death report. This will not be happening in Medina’s case. Because the agency released her from custody the day she entered the hospital, Medina is not considered an in-custody death.

“There is a precedent for this, and some immigration advocates say it’s a “loophole being exploited.”


“Joa’s tragic death follows a series of troubling incidents that occurred at Otero County Processing Center, which is run by the for-profit Management and Training Corporation (MTC) and falls under the jurisdiction of the El Paso ICE Field Office. In March, a group of attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico, Santa Fe Dreamers Project, and Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center issued a collective letter calling attention to horrendous detention conditions that were putting LGBTQ asylum seekers held at Otero in danger. As visitors to the facility, we’ve personally spoken to three of the 12 individuals referenced in that letter. Moreover, visiting LGBTQ and other persons detained at Otero, we’ve been personally subjected to threatening behavior and verbal harassment by members of the facility staff who hold leadership positions. Thus, albeit in comparatively small doses, we’ve witnessed the types of abusive attitudes and behaviors that we have heard are far worse behind locked doors….

“When LGBTQ individuals complained about the ongoing sexual harassment, MTC placed them in solitary confinement. Otero staff gave them the option to remain in solitary or return to general population, where they would suffer continued sexual harassment.”


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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1 Response to Shelters, Prisons, Concentration Camps: Where Does the United States Put Migrants?

  1. Pingback: What You Can Do | Immigration news

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