After New Mexico State University professor Neal Rosendorf read a government report exposing dangerous overcrowding of detained migrants at the Paso del Norte International Bridge in El Paso, he headed to the port of entry to see if he could find anyone protesting conditions there. When he reached the west side of the bridge, he encountered an unmarked open gate, which he walked through in the hopes of asking Border Patrol agents whether they had seen any protesters. Continuing underneath and then past the bridge about 100 yards or so, he was stunned by what he saw—migrants who said they’d been held outdoors for weeks as temperatures rose to nearly 100 degrees.
Rosendorf described it as “a human dog pound”—one hundred to 150 men behind a chain-link fence, huddled beneath makeshift shelters made from mylar blankets and whatever other scraps they could find to shield themselves from the heat of the sun. “I was able to speak with detainees and take photos of them with their permission,” Rosendorf said in an email. “They told me they’ve been incarcerated outside for a month, that they haven’t washed or been able to change the clothes they were detained in the entire time, and that they’re being poorly fed and treated in general.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection took eight days to respond to Texas Monthly’s questions about Rosendorf’s discovery. In a statement this week, a CBP official acknowledged that the agency was detaining migrants outdoors for extended periods.
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“During the current crisis, U.S. Border Patrol has had to take extraordinary measures to ensure the safety of our agents and those in our custody. As such, and to avoid severe overcrowding of USBP temporary holding facilities, every available space which provides both freedom of movement, safety, and security for those in our custody are used as necessary,” the official said. “Throughout the intake, processing, and holding of those in our custody, some individuals are being held in an area near the [Paso del Norte)] Bridge … Some of those locations are partially outdoors while still providing relief from sun, wind, and inclement weather.”
The official said CBP tries to make bathing available to detainees. “However, shower facility use is prioritized for children and vulnerable populations. Clothing is changed or provided as necessary and as available.”
Rosendorf said he was able to spend almost fifteen minutes talking to the detained migrants until Border Patrol and CBP officials discovered him and ordered him to leave. The CBP official acknowledged that “staffing shortfalls and conflicts” allowed the government professor to wander through what is supposed to be a secure area. “Unfortunately, this was a rare instance where there was a breakdown in communication and area coverage/relief was not as seamless as it should have been. Local leadership is addressing this issue,” the official said.
CBP previously detained people under the bridge in March and early April but moved the detainees to enclosed conditions after a public outcry over reports of children and pregnant women sleeping on gravel and being bombarded with pigeon droppings. At the time, CBP officials said they were using an area on the east side of the port of entry as a processing center for migrants, preparing them for transfer to other facilities or release. Officials didn’t respond to questions about when they resumed detaining rather than processing people outdoors.
Both Rosendorf and Representative Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, said they were told by detainees that some people have been held more than a month outdoors. They said they saw only single adults held outside at the bridge. Escobar said she was told most were Cuban men. The report by the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General that triggered Rosendorf’s trip to the bridge was based on an unannounced inspection on May 7 and 8, a little over three weeks before he saw people detained outside.
The report didn’t mention people detained outside. “When we observed conditions and reviewed custody records at the CBP facility at the Paso del Norte Bridge, we did not see evidence at the time of our visit that people were held outside for excessive time periods,” inspector general spokesman Arlen Morales said. “We will be conducting additional unannounced inspections and will continue to report on our observations.”
CBP policies state that people shouldn’t be held for more than three days at its facilities, which generally are small cells designed to keep people for just a few hours while they are processed. But DHS has said its detention arm, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is at its maximum capacity of about 52,000 because of the ongoing surge of migrants at the border. As a result, CBP is holding more than 30,000 people in its facilities, according to DHS.
Escobar said ICE could alleviate what the inspector general called “dangerous holding conditions” at the Paso del Norte Bridge by releasing more detainees. That would allow CBP to move migrants from the bridge to ICE’s long-term detention facilities so they could begin the asylum process. “I know for a fact that some ICE beds are taken up by people who should be paroled, should be connected to their sponsor, people who are not a threat to America or society, people who are still waiting for the final adjudication on their asylum requests,” she said.
CBP hasn’t said how many people are being held outdoors at the bridge, but Escobar said she saw “at least a couple hundred” when she visited the area on Friday. She said the conditions are straining migrants and border agents.
El Paso’s forecast calls for high temperatures in the upper 90s to low 100s for the next several weeks. In recent days, the makeshift shelters of the people held outdoors have become increasingly visible to pedestrians crossing into the United States on the bridge above. Escobar fears that disaster looms. “As the weather warms up, I am afraid more people will die,” she said. “It’s impossible to control dehydration when you have people in these large groups sitting outside—even when they’re under a shady area.”