Border Patrol Responds to Conditions, Delays Lawsuit

3 years 6 months 1 week ago Friday, September 06 2019 Sep 6, 2019 September 06, 2019 7:14 PM September 06, 2019 in News - Local

MCALLEN - Under oath, Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol officials admitted they were not prepared for the influx of migrants witnessed this year.

It was the second day of a preliminary injunction hearing asking the court to detail improvements that should be made at Valley facilities. 

Government attorneys brought forth witnesses who focused on a new holding facility, a recently-enacted Valley-wide policy, and charts that showed a decrease migration flow. 

During testimony, RGV Sector Law Enforcement Operational Programs Carmen Qualia all but stopped herself from saying they were "tripping" over people during the height of the influx this year at the McAllen Central Processing Center.

Migrants testified of experiencing "inhuman" conditions in Border Patrol custody.

Today, officials say conditions have vastly improved due to several factors. 

They spoke about the Donna Holding Facility, referred to as Donna III.

They believe it addressed and fixed many concerns. Now, migrants can shower, sleep on mats, and eat hot meals.

It was a sharp contrast to conditions migrants said they lived.

They said at some point they had to wash the foul-smelling meat before consuming it and resorted to sleeping on the floor in shifts while they were kept in overcrowded cells. 

Overcrowding led to detention exceeding the agency's statutory 72-hour processing deadline as per the National Standards on Transport, Escort, Detention and Search, or TEDS.

In response, the created and implemented a Valley-wide policy that recently went into effect Aug. 22.

Now, once a migrant is kept past three days in their custody, they can be allowed a phone call (although agents have discretion and could deny request), granted access to a shower, and provided with a sleeping mat. 

Border Patrol in the Valley is currently at 72% below capacity. In March, they were 174% capacity.

 Border Patrol Chief of the Rio Grande Valley Sector Rodolfo Karish credits the Migrant Protection Protocol, or MPP also known as the Remain in Mexico program, Mexico's southern border enforcement, and Central American efforts for stemming the flow.

However, a chart they presented in court showed a sharp drop in apprehension and in-custody populations after MPP started in mid-July. 

Attorneys for the government argue the judge doesn't have to order the agency to make improvements they feel they've already made. 

Legal counsel for the petitioners contested the changes in place won't hold. Migrants don't all experience the improved conditions in place at the Donna Holding Facility.

Even so, funding is slotted to run out at the end of the month.

Chief Karish says he doesn't know if they'll be renewed, but they're considering creating another, more permanent facility in Mission. 

Petitioners also reminded the judge that the numbers could again skyrocket and destabilize conditions. MPP is only about a month old in the RGV sector and sends back about 1200 migrants to Matamoros.

If the court halts it again, that would mean overcrowding could follow at Valley Border Patrol facilities. 

The attorneys for the migrants were highly concerned about their right to access legal counsel and make phone calls.

Government attorneys and their witnesses said attorneys are now allowed to visit clients at Donna facilities and the new policy allows migrants to make phone calls.

Attorneys pointed out that the policy could be rescinded at any time and are asking the judge to order the agency make these positive changes permanent. 

Southern District of Texas Judge Fernando Rodriguez, Jr.says his decision will affect facilities in the four counties of Starr, Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy. His decision could take up to four weeks to be announced.

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