HOUSTON (AP) – The day after she gave birth at a Texas border hospital, federal agents took Nailet and her newborn son to a detention center that immigrants often refer to as the “refrigerator.”
Inside, large cells were filled with women and their young children. Nailet and her son were housed with 15 other women and given a mat to sleep on, with little space to spare despite the coronavirus pandemic, he said. The lights stayed on twenty-four hours a day. The children sneezed and coughed constantly.
Nailet, who kept her newborn warm with a quilt she got from the hospital, told The Associated Press that Border Patrol agents would not tell her when they would be released. She and her son were detained for six days at a Border Patrol station. That’s twice what federal rules generally allow.
“I had to constantly insist that they bring me wet wipes and diapers,” said Nailet, who left Cuba last year and asked that her last name be hidden for fear of retaliation if she was forced to return.
Increasing numbers of immigrant families have been crossing the US-Mexico border in the first weeks of President Joe Biden’s administration. Warning signs are emerging from the border crises that marked former President Donald Trump’s tenure: Hundreds of newly released immigrants are being turned over to nonprofit groups, sometimes unexpectedly, and stories like Nailet’s from prolonged detentions at short-term facilities.
Measures to control the virus have dramatically reduced space in detention facilities that were overwhelmed during a surge in arrivals in 2018 and 2019, when reports emerged of families crammed into cells and unaccompanied children having to care for each other.
Most Border Patrol stations are not designed to serve children and families or to house people for the long term. To cope with the new influx, the agency on Tuesday reopened a large tent facility in South Texas to house immigrant families and children.
In a statement last week, US Customs and Border Protection said some of its facilities had reached “maximum safe holding capacity” and cited several challenges: COVID-19 protocols, changes to Mexican law. and limited space to house immigrants.
“We will continue to use all current authorities to avoid keeping people in a congregated setting for any length of time,” said the agency, which declined an interview request.
Meanwhile, long-term detention centers for children crossing the border alone, some sent by parents forced to wait in Mexico, are 80% full. US Health and Human Services, which runs those centers, will reopen an emergency facility in a former camp for oilfield workers. in Carrizo Springs, Texas, already on Monday. It has capacity for about 700 teenagers. The emergency facilities cost an estimated $ 775 per child per day, and Democrats harshly criticized them during the Trump years.
There is no clear determining factor for the increase in families and children crossing. Some experts and advocates believe that more are trying to cross illegally now that Biden is president, believing his administration will be more permissive than Trump’s.
Many have waited a year or more under Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” program that forces asylum seekers to stay south of the border while a judge considers their case. The White House is not adding people to the program, but has not said how it will resolve the pending cases. He also refused to expel unaccompanied children under a public health order related to the pandemic issued by Trump.
Others cite the consequences of natural disasters in Central America and the turmoil in countries like Haiti.
The United States has also stopped sending some immigrant families back to parts of Mexico, particularly to areas of the state of Tamaulipas across from South Texas. The change in practice appears to be uneven, with immigrants expelled elsewhere and without a clear explanation for the differences.
In Mexico, a law came into force that prohibits keeping children in migrant detention centers. But Mexico’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the agreements with the United States during the pandemic remain “in the same terms.” The statement said that “it is normal that there are adjustments at the local level, but that does not mean that the practice has changed or stopped.”
Some pregnant mothers, like Nailet, who have been denied entry to the U.S. crossing again during labor. Your children become US citizens by birthright. The Border Patrol generally releases those families in the country, although reports have emerged of immigrant parents and US-born children being evicted.
In the Nailet case, CBP said an unforeseen increase in the number of families crossing the border near Del Rio, about 150 miles (241 kilometers) west of San Antonio, led to his prolonged detention.
Advocates say officials should have released Nailet quickly, as well as other families with young children, and should speed up processing to avoid delays. Authorities have long resisted what they call “catch and release,” which they say inspires more immigrants to try to enter the country illegally, often through smugglers linked to transnational gangs.
Even with the pain of giving birth, Nailet cared for her newborn in the cold cell. When she told border agents that the hospital said she would return on February 1, she says they refused to take her.
CBP says Nailet and her son underwent a medical check-up Wednesday night.
She was released Thursday and taken to a hotel with the help of a nonprofit group, the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition, which is one of several organizations receiving a greater number of immigrant families after they leave government custody. .
Dr. Amy Cohen, a child psychiatrist and executive director of the immigration advocacy group Every Last One, described how border detention can traumatize a newborn: the cold, the constant light, the stress emanating from its nursing mother.
“This is a tremendously vulnerable moment,” he said. “He is consuming the stress that she is experiencing. This is your first exposure to the world outside the womb. This is extremely cruel and dangerous. “
A previous increase in illegal border crossings combined with delays in processing families led to horrific conditions at several border stations. in 2019, with food and water shortages and, in many cases, children defended themselves.
The year before, when the Trump administration separated thousands of immigrant families Under its “zero tolerance” policy, many people were detained in a converted warehouse in South Texas. Thousands of children separated from their parents entered government custody, including emergency facilities in Tornillo, Texas and Homestead, Florida.
Associated Press journalists Christopher Sherman and María Verza in Mexico City contributed to this report.