U.S. Customs and Border Protection is seeking to build a second, centralized facility in El Paso to process migrants arriving at the border.
The proposed "Central Processing Center" would be the second such facility in El Paso. They represent the Department of Homeland Security's latest approach to temporarily detaining and processing migrants who cross the U.S.-Mexico border without permission.
CBP in December asked the city of El Paso to sell 60 acres belonging to the water authority in Northeast with an assessed value of about $431,000, according to a Dec. 11, 2020, land sale request obtained by the El Paso Times.
The site, located off Highway 54, would be "for a Central Processing Facility, El Paso Sector, U.S. Border Patrol," according to the document.
CBP El Paso spokesman Landon Hutchens confirmed that the agency “is in the process of acquiring land for the facility" with funds appropriated in fiscal 2019 and said the project "is currently in the design phase."
He declined to answer questions about the facility's capacity or which migrants would be held there.
A July 2020 environmental assessment for a new "Central Processing Center" evaluated plans for a facility large enough "to accommodate 965 detainees and a staff of 200 for the processing and temporary holding of migrants who have crossed into the U.S."
"The USBP El Paso Sector does not have the processing space to hold and process the influx of migrants that enter the U.S. on a daily basis," according to the environmental assessment. The facility would be "for the purpose of providing immediate, safe and secure processing and detention space for migrant families and unaccompanied children in the USBP El Paso Sector."
CBP's own standards dictate that the agency shouldn't hold migrants longer than 72 hours and that the additional processing center "would support CBP's effort to comply with (the standards) and process migrants in an efficient manner."
Migrants are routinely held in CBP custody longer than three days when the number of people arriving at the border overwhelms Border Patrol's capacity to either release them, return them to Mexico, transfer custody to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or, in the case of unaccompanied children, transfer them to the Department of Health and Human Services.
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A demographic shift
Border Patrol's more than 70 stations along the border were designed with the goal of temporarily detaining and processing single men, who for decades made up the majority of people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border without permission.
The jail-like holding cells proved disastrously inadequate as the demographics of migration shifted beginning in 2014 and more people began heading north with their families. Increasingly, children also began crossing the border without a parent or legal guardian.
For weeks in late 2018 and early 2019, amid a sharp increase in unaccompanied minors arriving at the border, Border Patrol was holding hundreds of children for longer than three days, including toddlers.
In Border Patrol's El Paso Sector, conditions deteriorated rapidly at the Clint station east of El Paso where children were being held at the time. Advocates who visited inside reported children were sleeping on floors and wearing soiled clothes, lacking access to basic necessities.
Holding capacity for families grew tight, too. At one point, migrant families were detained in cold temperatures in an outdoor enclosure beneath a Downtown international bridge in El Paso.
In New Mexico's remote Antelope Wells port of entry — also part of Border Patrol's El Paso Sector — agents were putting hundreds of people, including children, in a garage-like space in the winter, while they waited to be transported to a Lordsburg border station to be processed.
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At least five children died after being detained by border agents in 2018 and 2019.
In the absence of congressional action on immigration, CBP's immediate answer to reduce the dangers to family and children was to build a "Central Processing Center" that would provide more of what the most vulnerable migrants needed, after what is often a dangerous and traumatic — sometimes futile — journey.
CBP built the first "Central Processing Center" next to its El Paso Station off Highway 54 in early 2020.
U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar toured the center in March, when hundreds of children were being held there. She said the children had access to clean clothes and hot meals.
“It’s not optimal for vulnerable children," she said in March, "but it’s a world of difference from what I saw at Clint” two years ago.
CBP didn't disclose the agency's timeline for construction of the new facility.
Lauren Villagran can be reached at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on El Paso Times: Border Patrol build 'central processing' site for migrants in El Paso