San Diego, February 14. – Many US detention centers located along the southern border were less than half capacity, and even empty, during a recent wave of asylum-seeking families, calling into question the claims of Donald Trump saying that migrants should wait in Mexico because the country did not have the means to receive them.
Detention cells were at less than half capacity at 18 of the 24 border crossings during most days between July 2018 and June 2019, according to an analysis of government data. The cells in the cities of Laredo and Brownsville, both in Texas, were at less than half of their capacity virtually nine out of 10 days during the 12-month period. Cells at crossing points with less traffic were often empty.
Some activists point out that the figures show that Trump’s government officials made excuses to prevent people from entering the United States to seek asylum.
In its defense, the Office of Customs and Border Protection (CBP for its initials in English) has long said that the number of migrants it can receive is not only related to the space available in its detention cells, but to the amount of personnel they have. And during that period, personnel were particularly reduced because they were in tasks considered of greater importance, such as the fight against drug trafficking and the inspection of transported cargo.
In addition, the figures for the detention cells do not tell the whole story, an official said in court documents made available. Some of the cells were at less than their capacity because some migrants must be isolated from others for security reasons. For example, someone arrested for a crime should remain in a cell alone, just like a family with lice or migrants with tattoos that link them to gangs.
A federal appeals court withdrew the confidentiality stamps from the documents at the request of The Associated Press. They were originally filed as part of a lawsuit that challenges the federal government’s practice of forcing asylum seekers to wait for weeks or months in dangerous Mexican border cities before they can seek refuge in the United States.
Since 2016, the US authorities have implemented a practice known as “dosing,” under which they accept only a limited number of asylum seekers daily at official ports of entry. As a result, huge waiting lists have been formed in the border communities of Mexico. The AP counted around 19,000 people on waiting lists in four cities last July.
The authorities have rejected accusations that they ignore their obligations, established by US law and international treaties, to consider asylum applications and have described dosing as a matter of mass management.
“People are not rejected; they are asked to wait,” said then CBP commissioner Kevin McAleenan in 2018.
The propagation of waiting lists coincided with a series of measures by the United States that drastically reduced the arrival of asylum seekers, including one that sends migrants back to Mexico to wait for the date of their immigration court hearings from the United States. Activists say that migrants have been victims of rapes, kidnappings and other crimes while waiting in Mexican territory.
The documents revealed huge variations in the occupancy rates of retention cells. The San Diego crossing, the largest on the border, was almost at maximum capacity almost every day, while others were regularly below the limits.
On March 14, according to a daily summary, there were 672 people detained at the 24 crossings, an occupancy rate of 57%. The San Ysidro port of entry in San Diego was at 89% capacity, Hidalgo was overcrowded and El Paso was practically full. But in Laredo, occupancy was barely 40%, 35% in Brownsville and seven other crossings, most of them in California, were empty.
The cells in some smaller crossings were regularly empty because the authorities were directing asylum seekers to larger cities.
“The CBP’s own statistics show that the government has ample capacity to process asylum seekers in contrast with what they are currently using,” said Southern Poverty Law Center, Center for Constitutional Rights, American Immigration Council and the law firm Legal Mayer Brown in a motion filed before a federal court in San Diego.
Todd Owen, a senior CBP official responsible for monitoring the ports of entry, said under oath at a December 13 hearing that the available space fluctuates according to the type of migrants detained and whether or not they need to remain isolated from others.
Owen also acknowledged that the processing of migrants was a lower priority than national security, counter-narcotics operations and legitimate trade and transfer regulations.
During the increase in the flow of migrants, 2,000 CBP inspectors were reassigned to help the Border Patrol process people who entered the country illegally. Some of the Border Patrol stations recorded a huge overpopulation of asylum seekers, and several children died in government custody.
The government figures were analyzed by Stephanie Leutert, an expert in Mexico and Central America at the Strauss Center for Security and International Law at the University of Texas. Leutert studied the data at the request of lawyers trying to block the practice of dosing.
Translated by JRE/EF