Overcrowding plummets at Texas facility holding migrant children

New data from the Department of Homeland Security indicates the number of unaccompanied children in Border Patrol custody has plummeted since late March. That trend can be seen at one of the U.S.'s largest border patrol facilities for minors, in Donna, Texas. CBS News immigration reporter Camilo Montoya-Galvez joined CBSN to discuss how conditions have changed.

Video Transcript

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: The Biden administration has been working toward steadily decreasing the number of migrant children, rather, held in Border Patrol custody. And new data shows those efforts have been broadly successful so far. According to the Department of Homeland Security, the number of unaccompanied children in Border Patrol custody has declined about 88% since late March. That trend can be seen at one of the country's largest border patrol facilities for minors, that's in Donna, Texas, where the conditions are now drastically different than they were earlier this year.

Camilo Montoya-Galvez is on the ground there following the story and joins us now. So Camilo, when you last visited this facility back in March, you reported on overcrowding that forced some children to sleep on the floor, others said that they were hungry, and some were only able to shower once a week. These are children. How have those conditions changed? And what challenges remain to be addressed?

CAMILO MONTOYA-GALVEZ: That's right, Vlad. This facility right behind me, which is the largest Border Patrol holding complex for unaccompanied migrant children and families with minors across the entire border, was severely overcrowded, surpassing 16 times of its pandemic-era capacity. The facility at that point was not supposed to house more than 250 migrants, and it was housing more than 400 migrants in March, Vlad, including more than 3,000 unaccompanied children.

When we toured the facility yesterday, the facility was housing about 800 migrants, including 330 unaccompanied children. So the population here of migrants and unaccompanied children has plummeted in about just five weeks. The conditions here have also improved. There is no longer any apparent severe overcrowding at the facility.

Back in March, pods that were designed for a handful of children were packed with dozens of unaccompanied minors. Now there are no more than eight children in each pod. So the conditions have drastically changed, Vlad, and this is part of a broader trend that we have been seeing here at the US-Mexico border. Back in March, there was a record 5,800 unaccompanied children in Border Patrol custody. And right now as we speak, there are less than 800 unaccompanied children in Border Patrol custody across the entire US-Mexico border.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: So that's good news these children are-- are no longer in Border Patrol custody. Border Patrol is not set up for that, to care for children. But then where are these children? Who-- who have them now?

CAMILO MONTOYA-GALVEZ: That's an excellent question, Anne-Marie. The main reason why conditions here in the Donna facility have improved and why the number of unaccompanied children in Border Patrol custody has dropped so significantly is because the Department of Health and Human Services, which is charged with housing unaccompanied children in the long term, has opened tens of thousands of emergency beds in convention centers, work camps, military bases, and another tent right behind me here in Donna, Texas, to house these minors and to get them out of Border Patrol custody.

Because as you mentioned, there's actually a law that requires Border Patrol to turn over unaccompanied children to HHS within three days of apprehending them. That was not happening in March. Some kids were being held here in Donna, Anne-Marie, for 20 days. Now the average length of time that they're spending here in this facility is 24 hours, according to Border Patrol officials.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: So Camilo, the Biden administration is rolling out a new system that would allow the most vulnerable migrants at the US-Mexico border to enter the country. Break that down for us. What's it all about?

CAMILO MONTOYA-GALVEZ: Yes, so for context, Vlad, the Biden administration has continued this Trump-era public health order of expelling most migrant adults and some families with children back to Mexico without letting them seek asylum. This is purportedly designed to stop the spread of COVID-19 inside migrant holding facilities, just like this one behind me, and to protect the Border agents from the virus. So the Biden administration has kept this Trump-era policy in place.

However, it has garnered a lot of criticism from advocates and human rights groups, and the Biden administration is now, according to sources, allowing some asylum seekers, including families with children, to enter official ports of entry. These are families and asylum seekers who are deemed to be vulnerable by NGOs in Mexico and who are referred to the Department of Homeland Security for them to be admitted into the US to continue their immigration proceedings. But again, they are the exception, Vlad. Most people are still being turned away without due process.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: So DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas is set to travel to where you are, Donna, Texas, to see that-- that same facility. Based on the photos that you just showed us, it looks like things are looking pretty good there. So what is the purpose of his trip?

CAMILO MONTOYA-GALVEZ: Sure. Well, I think Secretary Mayorkas is coming down to Donna to tour this facility right behind me, because he understands that conditions have improved dramatically, that the number of children stuck in Border Patrol custody has plummeted since March, and that he will likely tout those efforts to get them out of Border Patrol custody and into HHS care. But I still think, Anne-Marie, that it's too early to declare victory in this effort, because there are more than 22,000 unaccompanied children currently in HHS care.

And while those facilities are much better settings than places like this one right behind me, children are not supposed to be there in the long term either. They're supposed to be in the homes of relatives, and parents, and uncles, and grandparents here in the US. And so now the Biden administration has to figure out how it is going to expedite the release of more than 20,000 children currently in HHS custody.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: Camilo, as always, we appreciate your reporting. Thank you very much.