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U.S. Builds Two $37 Million Temporary Holding Tents For Migrants


Now to the Texas-Mexico border and some of the latest efforts to deal with the influx of migrant families and unaccompanied children. In just the last two weeks, the Department of Homeland Security has built and opened two new tent-like structures in the cities of El Paso and Donna to house those crossing the border. Texas Public Radio's Reynaldo Leanos Jr. takes us there.

REYNALDO LEANOS JR, BYLINE: A 40,000-square-foot white tent-like structure now sits next to the Donna-Rio Bravo International Bridge in Texas' Rio Grande Valley. Carmen Qualia is an executive officer with Border Patrol and is leading a tour.

CARMEN QUALIA: What you are in right now is what we refer to as a pod, one of the - one of four detention pods. And the pods are approximately 8,000 square feet.

LEANOS: The facility is meant to house migrant families and unaccompanied minors for no more than 72 hours.

QUALIA: And we also have a intake area and a processing area. And you'll be able to see that; intake will be the next location that we go to see.

LEANOS: The pod we're in has high ceilings with tarp-like walls and a stack of thin, black plastic mattresses pushed up against the wall. Qualia says the facility is designed to hold 500 people but could hold more.

QUALIA: I hope it's enough. I don't know. And we would like to see, you know, the flow slow down as well as to stop altogether.

LEANOS: This is one of two new structures designed to detain migrants when they are apprehended at the border or turn themselves in. The other's in El Paso. The facilities are part of a $36.9 million contract awarded to a New York company called Deployed Resources. Across the southern border, more than a hundred thousand migrants were taken into custody in March, the biggest monthly total in more than a decade. During that period, Border Patrol reported apprehending more than 30,000 migrants in the Rio Grande Valley sector alone.

RICK MORALES: We - as small cities, we're not equipped to handle 2,000, 3,000, 4,000 people coming over. And, well, we're just - you know, we don't have those kind of funds.

LEANOS: Rick Morales is the mayor of the city of Donna. The new tent structures are meant to be operational for at least four months. Morales says they need even more capacity.

MORALES: I think they need maybe 2,500 beds, 3,000 beds.

LEANOS: It's important, Morales says, to treat the arriving migrants humanely.

MORALES: We have to do the right thing. Listen; we're America. We know if we turn these people away and not take care of them properly, you know, where else do they go?

LEANOS: The temporary holding facilities aren't new for Donna. Back in late December of 2016 during the final days of the Obama administration, a similar facility was open for a few weeks. Then the detention center raised questions among residents, immigration advocates and community leaders. Carlos Moctezuma Garcia is an immigration attorney in the Rio Grande Valley. He says in 2016, migrants didn't have access to legal representation at the holding facility, and he's worried that the same thing will happen this time.

CARLOS MOCTEZUMA GARCIA: This is the first contact that they're having with law enforcement officials, and the information that they give here can later be used in whatever court proceeding that these people were going to have.

LEANOS: In the end, Garcia says he'd like to see border officials find alternatives to detention.

GARCIA: The majority of these people are presenting themselves to a Border Patrol official as soon as they see them. Why - because they want help. They're not looking to evade. And so that to me tells me that they will continue showing up to immigration court.

LEANOS: Customs and Border Protection says they don't provide legal services to migrants at the temporary holding facilities because it's not meant for long-term detention. For NPR News, I'm Reynaldo Leanos Jr. in Donna, Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIEN BAKER'S "SPRAINED ANKLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Reynaldo Leaños Jr.