Yet again, the Trump administration’s treatment of migrants is under severe scrutiny. On Wednesday morning, images and videos showing men, women, and children confined behind wire fencing under an overpass in El Paso, Texas, were circulated on social media. It appeared that hundreds of people, including babies, were being held in cages at the Paso Del Norte Border Patrol station. So what is happening, and why? Who are the people behind those fences, and why are they being held there?
Here’s everything to know about what is happening at Paso del Norte.
What are these cages?
In an interview with the Texas Tribune, U.S. Border Patrol spokesman Ramiro Cordero stated that the fencing under the overpass was constructed as a temporary holding location. There are tents in the enclosed space, and Cordero says that they are equipped with basic necessities.
“They get blankets, food, bathroom facilities, water, snacks — they have it all there,” Cordero explained to the Tribune. “If all of them wanted to sleep inside the tent, they would be able to. A lot of them choose not to for whatever reason.”
The facilities are similar to those in the massive “tent city” the Trump administration constructed this past summer to house detained migrant children and teens, but on a smaller scale.
In a press conference on Wednesday near the detention lot, Customs and Border Protection commissioner Kevin McAleenan called the cages a “negative outcome,” according to the Washington Post. McAleenan said it is “the only current option we have” because the existing processing centers have been completely overwhelmed.
Who is being held there?
The people being held in the fenced-off areas are migrants who have been apprehended and detained by law enforcement agencies at the border. They include families and adults who traveled without children. Unaccompanied minors are being held at a different location, according to McAleenan. In videos posted from outside the camp, infants and young children can be seen in the arms of women, and boys who look no older than 10 years old can be spotted leaning on the fences.
Once apprehended, migrants are normally sent to a processing center, but because so many people are detained — 3,500 people just in El Paso — they are being put in these temporary camps.
Most of the people are traveling from Central America, particularly Guatemala and Honduras. Many of the migrants are seeking asylum, and fleeing violence, poverty, and political unrest in their home countries. Many of these Central American countries endured years of political and economic interference from the U.S. government throughout the 20th century.
McAleenan told reporters at the Wednesday press conference that the 13,500 of migrants being detained across the border is more than double the 6,000 people he would consider a “crisis.” Shelters and detention centers are overcapacity because as more people attempt border crossings, immigration enforcement agencies apprehend more people.
“We had over 1,000 apprehensions in this one sector alone on Monday,” McAleenan said of the El Paso Border Patrol operations, according to the Albuquerque Journal.
How long are people being held there?
Once inside, the migrants are held for an indeterminate amount of time, according to Border Patrol spokesperson Cordero. U.S. law states that migrants are not allowed to be held in processing centers for longer than 72 hours.
“It could be a couple of hours, it could be 12 hours,” Cordero told the Tribune. He explained that when a migrant is picked up by border patrol, there are a few steps before they get taken to a holding facility, a process that can take hours. Then when a migrant is delivered to a processing facility, there can be additional wait times.
“You don’t get processed because there is a bottleneck until the following day,” Cordero continued. “Did you stay there overnight? Yes, you sure did. So a lot is just perspective. The sun went down, it came back up. So for them that’s two days.”
While the average amount of time migrants are being held at this camp has not been verified, there’s not a lot of promising precedent. Other detention and processing centers have been accused by human rights organizations of holding migrants for days and weeks longer than the centers are designed for, sometimes resulting in illness.
What is going to happen next?
Politicians and advocates have expressed outrage at the images and video coming from the El Paso camp. Beto O’Rourke, who represented the El Paso area when he was a congressman, tweeted that the camp was “unacceptable,” adding, “This is not how we should be treating our fellow human beings.”
Representative Veronica Escobar, the Democratic congresswoman who serves now El Paso, went on MSNBC to criticize Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who oversees immigration enforcement.
“What we’ve seen, instead of solutions, is the implementations of Donald Trump’s cruel policies,” Escobar said. “These policies that have been executed by Secretary Nielsen have made a challenging situation far more difficult.”
Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar also condemned the cages. “Look at this picture,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote. “When you’re looking at this photo, you’re looking at a mirror. This is America. This is Texas. This is our the course of action, the one we chose. I cannot and will not accept it.”
Omar called the camps “abhorrent and inhumane,” writing that the migrants being held under the bridge is “without a doubt a reflection of what white nationalism is doing to our country.”
But despite mounting criticism, the Trump administration has remained firm in its quest to punish and intimidate people attempting to enter the U.S., in hopes that it will discourage more border crossings. So far, that has not been an effective strategy.
According to the Washington Post, 100,000 people crossed into the U.S. in March of 2019, compared to the 68,000 who crossed in 2014, when the last “border crisis” occurred. Experts believe that as the weather gets warmer, even more people will attempt to enter the United States, and based on the caged tent camp in the parking lot of the El Paso processing center, the U.S. government is not prepared for that.