The U.S. Customs and Border Protection announces shut down of South-Texas “Ursula” warehouse detention center. The facility gained national attention when media coverage exposed the overcrowded, unsafe living conditions and showed “kids in cages” back in 2018. CBP officials say the facility will be closed for renovations until 2022. The renovations plan to redesign the facility and remove the chain-link partitions to provide more humane living conditions.
Warehouse detention center shuts down
Anyone who has been paying attention to immigration reform issues over the past few years will be familiar with the term “kids in cages” and the deplorable living conditions faced by migrants who have been detained for prolonged periods in detention centers along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The “Ursula” warehouse facility in South-Texas became infamous when new coverage revealed the harsh, dehumanizing living conditions migrants faced within the facility. Freezing, overcrowded, and filthy the facility packed immigrants–a vast majority of which were young children separated from family–into small chain-link enclosures.
“Children were in freezing, packed cages and sleeping on concrete,” said Hope Frye in an article with the New York Times. As a lawyer who oversaw a visiting team of inspectors at the Ursula facility, she witnessed first-hand the terrible and upsetting conditions. “It was bone-chilling. Young children were violently ill, separated from their family.”
Since then, efforts have been made to put an end to the inhumane treatment of immigrants in these facilities. These renovations are only the first step toward reform at the border.
“The new design will allow for updated accommodations, which will greatly improve the operating efficiency of the center as well as the welfare of individuals being processed,” Thomas Gresback, a spokesman for the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector, said in an article with The Washington Post.
The renovation, which will be paid for by funds allocated by Congress, will include room partitions that will “afford modest housing accommodations” as well as updating processing areas and providing a recreational area for children.
At its peak, the center housed over 2,000 immigrants, many being young women and children. The renovated center will significantly lower those numbers, aiming to provide space for 1,100 individuals.
Ursula’s history and origins
The Ursula center was first opened in 2014 during the Obama administration as a response to a surge of Central American immigrants arriving at the border in search of asylum. At the time, the facility was a welcomed improvement to the previous cramped locations. During the 2014 surge, the bare-bones facilities were not equipped to handle the large influx of individuals, leaving many families out in the heat for hours in exteriors locations. The Ursula warehouse was acquired to remedy this and provide an indoor, climate-controlled environment.
In 2014, migrants were processed and released quickly from the facilities so the population never grew as overcrowded and unsafe as it has in recent years. However, after the Trump Administration’s crackdown on immigration the facility soon became overpopulated as migrants were detained for periods of weeks and months on end in unsafe conditions.
This past year, due to the pandemic, President Trump invoked emergency powers under public health laws to halt most immigration. As such, the facility has been unused since March with thousands of immigrants turned back to Mexico.
In the fight for immigration reform and as an effort to offer protection to young immigrants, a federal judge ordered last week for the Trump administration to stop expelling young people who arrive on their own looking for asylum in the U.S.
The future of immigration reform
While the news of the Ursula facility renovations is welcomed news to immigrant advocates, this is only the first step toward immigration reform at the border. Advocates cautioned that more fundamental changes will be necessary to ensure that migrants are no longer stranded in detention centers for prolonged periods of time.
“This feels a little bit like window dressing. It is overdue from the perspective that no one should be housed in cages,” said Michael Bochenek, senior counsel in the children’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, in an article with the New York Times.
“The more fundamental shift that needs to happen is rigorous application of federal law and an agency standard that calls for expeditious transfer to more suitable arrangements for children and families,” Mr. Bochenek continued. “Nobody was really looking out for the kids. All they had were mats and foil blankets,” he said, describing the conditions he witnessed when visiting the warehouse as part of a monitoring team in 2018. “We talked to teenage girls caring for toddlers in cages. We looked over and saw a boy 7 or 9 years old. The kid was beside himself in tears. He was in deep distress and there were no adults anywhere nearby to find out what was wrong.”
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It’s clear that the current system needs to be reformed. President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to do his part to reverse the Trump administration’s approach to immigration and border control. He plans to cut off funds to the expanded border wall and restore the process for welcoming asylum applicants into the country while their cases are in progress.
Renovations to the Ursula detention center facility are estimated to last 18 months, which will leave border agents without a large-volume facility if a new immigration surge occurs. Last month, over 69,000 migrants were taken into custody along the southern border. Most have been processed at smaller, less-crowded facilities. Still, this 21 percent increase in migrants since September suggests a growing increase in immigration as many individuals are fleeing Central America after recent hurricane devastation, economic distress, and coronavirus related hardships.