The Trump Administration Says It Can’t Handle More Migrants, Ignoring Thousands of Vacant Beds in Family Detention Centers

U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Rio Grande Valley Sector via AP

People who've been taken into custody related to cases of illegal entry into the United States sit at a detention facility in McAllen, Texas. 

Thousands of beds in family detention centers in Pennsylvania and Texas lie vacant, as the Trump administration announces plans to build two new temporary facilities on the border to house migrant parents and children.

On Thursday, acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan announced that the government will spend close to $40 million on building two new “tent cities”—temporary housing centers for migrant families—in Texas. The two facilities are set to go up by the end of April and will house hundreds of migrants each.

“It’s clear that all of our resources are being stretched thin,” McAleenan told reporters during a press conference in Hidalgo, Texas. “The system is full and we are beyond capacity.”

The announcement comes just two days after the release of an emergency report by the Department of Homeland Security’s bipartisan advisory council, in which panel members urged the administration to build as many as four new detention facilities on the border to house migrant families. The report’s authors estimated that several billions of dollars will be required for construction and administrative costs alone. McAleenan called the report’s recommendations “reasonable” and said that they would “form key elements of the Department’s response in the coming weeks.” Thursday’s announcement suggests that DHS is looking to move on the report’s suggestions quickly.

McAleenan, along with other administration officials and Trump himself, has maintained that the rise in the number of families arriving at the border has overwhelmed the U.S. immigration system. In fact, empty detention beds for immigrant families abound, calling into question the administration’s claims that more facilities are desperately needed to house incoming migrants.

“While we don’t think families should be detained at all, we do find it striking that the administration is claiming the U.S. is at capacity, when these facilities sit almost empty,” says Karen Hoffmann, an immigration attorney at Aldea-The People’s Justice Center, a nonprofit representing parents and children detained at the Berks family detention center in Pennsylvania.

The 96-bed Berks facility, located a few miles outside of Reading, went from averaging about 80 women and children in fiscal years 2015 and 2016 to just 22 for 2019, according to ICE figures. There are currently six families, totaling 18 people, being held at Berks. Hoffman says that the number of individuals in the facility began to drop suddenly at the end of 2018, just as the number of families and children arriving at the border began to spike.

The largest family detention facility, located in small-town Dilley, Texas, has only 627 of its 2,400 beds filled as of Thursday. That’s less than half of the facility’s average population for fiscal year 2019 and close to a third of the 1,556 people from the year before.

In the other Texas facility, the Karnes County Residential Center, the number of migrant women and children detained dropped from an average of more than 500 to just 392 in FY 2019. ICE announced that as of April 1 it would use the facility exclusively for housing about 700 migrant women for the next few months. As a result, there are currently no families being held at Karnes.

An ICE spokesperson told the Prospect that the agency’s transportation resources have been exhausted by the volume of families crossing the border, forcing ICE to route only a limited number of families apprehended at the border to the facility in Dilley, Texas.

Immigrant advocates view this claim skeptically.

“It doesn’t make sense. They’ve done this for years without a problem. They have more money now than they’ve ever had,” says Hoffmann. “It wouldn’t be far-fetched to assume that ICE is trying to exaggerate the extent of this crisis.”

The federal budget signed by President Trump in February included $7.6 billion for ICE, an increase of more than $500 million over the last fiscal year. The White House’s latest budget proposal in March included a request for additional funding for 10,000 family detention beds.

While still far lower than the record number of unauthorized migrants in the early 2000s, the total number of undocumented people entering the U.S. now is at its highest in more than a decade. Unlike the wave of arriving migrants in the early aughts, which was largely made up of single adult men from Mexico pursuing work in the U.S., this recent increase is instead preponderantly made up of asylum-seeking families and unaccompanied children from Central America. In fact, recent indicators suggest that the number of children and families crossing the southern border is at an all-time high. In February alone, federal agents apprehended roughly 76,000 people at the border, according to government estimates. More than half of those apprehended were unaccompanied children or families.

This new mix of arrivals has proven to be a challenge for an antiquated immigration system designed to deport its way out of heightened levels of undocumented migration. Asylum seekers, unaccompanied minors, and families arriving with children are protected under international and U.S. law from the usual process of routine deportation. In the case of families and children, even routine detention is limited by law.

Adult asylum seekers who have demonstrated “credible” fear of persecution in their home country may not be deported until they’ve had their day in court, but they can still be locked up by immigration agents until that day comes, even if it’s years away. Unaccompanied children from non-Mexican countries, on the other hand, must be transferred to special facilities run by the Health and Human Services Department within 72 hours. And while arriving families can be detained in any of the three existing family detention facilities, they typically can’t be held for longer than 20 days, thanks to a 2017 court ruling.

DHS has opted to respond to these logistical challenges by increasing detention capacity rather than expanding its low-cost supervised release programs. One such release program, the Family Case Management Program, was terminated by the Trump administration in 2017.

The Obama administration also made use of tent camps to meet a growing influx of migrants. Tent shelters built by the Obama administration, however, as well as a tent shelter used by the Trump administration to house migrant children, received intense criticism from legislators and immigrant advocates for their high cost and poor living conditions. The Trump administration announced in January that it would be closing its tent shelter on the Texas border.

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