US detention centers that hold migrant parents and children have been nearly empty for months, despite Donald Trump’s administration repeatedly warning that the US-Mexico border is at a “breaking point” because of the surge in Central American families fleeing poverty and violence.
There were nearly 2,000 empty beds in two detention centers last week, with a facility in Dilley, Texas, at 26% capacity and a facility in Berks county, Pennsylvania, at 19% capacity. On 1 April, the third family shelter was temporarily changed into a facility for adult women only.
This, combined with reports of aid agencies at the border overwhelmed by the food, shelter and medicine needs of migrants, has advocates warning that the government could be manufacturing a crisis to justify its hardline immigration policies.
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“I think that the people making policy decisions don’t want [the system] to work … they want to create chaos,” said Michelle Brané, director of the migrant rights and justice program at the Women’s Refugee Commission.
She said the crowds at the border were due to a collision of the crisis in Central America – which has been brewing for years – and the Trump administration’s own restrictive immigration policies.
“You could go through all of the policies since they’ve come in and they’ve all been about undermining or destroying the system we have in place for processing and screening people, so here we are,” said Brané.
These policies include metering how many people are allowed to request asylum at legal ports of entry each day – which has created backlogs of thousands of people in the largest border towns. These long waits have also driven people to cross the US border with Mexico outside of ports of entry, hoping to encounter an agent who must consider their asylum request.
Peter Schey, executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, told the AP that the empty shelters were also part of a government narrative that it must conduct “catch and release” because Congress won’t change laws to extend limits on family detention and to make it easier for the government to deport asylum seekers.
“Trump’s policies have swung from one extreme to the other,” Schey said. “There’s no consistency; there’s no strategic planning.”
It is up to border agents to determine whether an asylum seeker is sent to detention or given a notice to appear in court and allowed to settle in the US while they wait for a court date.
Trump has long been critical of the US government’s historical preference for releasing families, and in November tweeted that he had ended the practice known as “catch and release.” Since December, however, his administration has, at least informally, favored release.
A spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice), which oversees immigration detention, said “limited transportation resources” and budget restrictions were largely responsible for the vacancy in family detention centers.
Ice declined to specify what transportation changes were needed, but suggested it did not have the resources available to move people from the nearly 2,000-mile border to detention centers in Texas and Pennsylvania.
“With FAMU (Unaccompanied Alien Children and Family Units) border crossings occurring along the entirety of the southwest border, Ice’s limited transportation resources would be quickly depleted if the agency undertook an effort to route all FAMU to one of the two family residential centers in Texas,” the agency said in a statement.
The agency also emphasized that it is troubled by a rule which prohibits families and children from being held in detention for more than 20 days. For two years, the Trump administration has sought to undo that rule, a court settlement created in response to concerns in the child welfare community about the impact of detention on migrant children.
The American Academy of Pediatrics said in March 2017 that no migrant child should ever be detained, citing studies that show families may suffer negative physical and emotional symptoms from detention, including anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Katy Murdza, an advocacy coordinator at the Dilley Pro Bono Project, said the group is glad there are fewer people being detained in the Texas shelter where they provide legal assistance to migrants, but are concerned about the migrants who are still detained.
“We find that no matter how many people are in family detention, even if it’s for shorter periods, even if it’s smaller groups, it still has upsetting effects,” Murdza said.
She said reports that the White House is considering introducing a new form of family separation, coupled with its other efforts to restrict asylum, have left advocates concerned about what the unusually empty shelters could signal for the future.
Murdza said: “With all of the attempts to take away the rights of asylum seekers, we are very, very concerned about any changes like that that could occur in family detention.”