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Border Patrol Must Stop Holding People in an Inhumane Outside Pen Under a Highway in South Texas

Migrants in custody at U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing area under the Anzalduas International Bridge, Friday, March 19, 2021, in Mission, Texas.
Border Patrol continues to detain migrants, including children, in appalling outdoor conditions under the Anzalduas International Bridge in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. The Biden administration must close this inhumane detention site now.
Migrants in custody at U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing area under the Anzalduas International Bridge, Friday, March 19, 2021, in Mission, Texas.
Shaw Drake,
Staff Attorney and Policy Counsel, Border and Immigrants’ Rights, ACLU of Texas
Kate Huddleston,
Equal Justice Works Fellow, ACLU of Texas
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August 9, 2021

Still wet from the river and held outdoors under the Anzalduas International Bridge overnight, the mother of a 6 year old pleaded with Border Patrol agents to help her sick child and others. “They’re not going to die,” replied one agent, according to a report by the Los Angeles Times.

But children have died in Border Patrol custody. And conditions at Border Patrol’s Anzalduas Bridge “Temporary Outdoor Processing Site” (TOPS) — a stretch of gravel and grass patches under an international highway in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley — risk the health and safety of the migrants who are detained there. That’s why we’re calling on the Biden administration to immediately close the site and implement oversight measures to ensure Border Patrol no longer holds anyone under such inhumane conditions.

Border Patrol began holding migrants at this outdoor site buried deep on federal property and out of public view on Jan. 23, 2021. It has detained migrants, including families with children, under the Anzalduas Bridge ever since — except for the multiple times when the site, located in a flood plain, has been evacuated due to weather conditions.

In late June 2021, we joined a brief official tour of the Anzalduas TOPS, during which Border Patrol representatives described the site as being used exclusively to hold families with children under 7 years old. Though we were not allowed to speak with those detained there, what we observed was deeply concerning.

The temperature was in the 90s. For the dozens of children and adults detained outdoors in the heat, only a fan and a set of overhead sprinklers provided plainly inadequate cooling. At a meeting in May, a Border Patrol representative justified holding families in the South Texas summer heat by egregiously claiming that the conditions are preferable to many migrants, who Border Patrol described as “not used to air conditioning.”

In addition to having no basic temperature controls, the TOPS has a bare-bones structure that lacks other minimal protections. Families are funneled through a series of outdoor areas surrounded by plastic fencing. We observed them being held in an area with hard benches and gravel as the only places to rest or sleep.

Border Patrol told us there is no medical staff on site beyond emergency medical personnel, and the nearest paved road to get to medical aid is a five to 10 minute drive away. Border Patrol has even given us conflicting answers about what, if any, detention standards apply to the site. This is particularly troubling since detention standards mandate a “reasonable and comfortable” temperature for those detained — contrary to the very design of the TOPS.

Just last week in the Rio Grande Valley, we interviewed recently released families with small children who reported that thousands of people were being held at the site. Every family reported spending two or three days under the bridge. Mothers shared that Border Patrol denied their pleas for medical care for sick children and that they experienced miserable conditions in high temperatures.

The TOPS has also been shrouded in secrecy. There are no telephones for migrants, and, like all Border Patrol facilities, no in-person visits are allowed. As pictures of a make-shift outdoor site began to surface earlier this year showing families with small children sleeping on the ground in corral-like holding areas, we filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking details. We wanted to know how long people were being held outdoors and how Border Patrol was ensuring the safety of those in custody. Over four months later, the agency still hasn’t responded to our FOIA request.

Subsequent reporting and our own interviews confirmed that families were being held outdoors under the bridge for multiple days, without adequate access to medical care, subjected to verbal abuse by Border Patrol agents, and suffering from first cold springtime and then hot summer temperatures.

Border Patrol said on our tour in June that families were held on the site for six to eight hours before being released to local shelters. But the agency also indicated that no one was released from the facility between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. — indicating families may in fact be held longer.

This is unfortunately not the first time we have witnessed Border Patrol hold migrants in wholly inhumane conditions outdoors. At least twice the Trump administration held children and adults in similar disgraceful outdoor conditions — once underneath a bridge in El Paso, Texas, and once in a Border Patrol parking lot in McAllen, Texas.

The Biden administration must reject the inhumanity of Trump-era practices and close the Anzalduas Bridge site. Border Patrol has demonstrated that it simply cannot hold people in appropriate conditions at this site. Border Patrol’s willingness to detain families with very young children in such a place reflects the agency’s systemic failures to provide humane detention conditions. Border Patrol’s lack of transparency is also deeply concerning and shows the need for outside access to the facilities where it holds migrants.

The administration should also take steps to remove Border Patrol from the detention business altogether. With the agency’s long track record of abuse, the Biden administration cannot allow conditions like those under the Anzalduas Bridge to persist. We demand better.

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