MCALLEN, Tex. — The chain-link fence holding pens of the Border Patrol’s largest processing center was stuffed with more than 2,000 people when the first ladies of the Northern Triangle arrived here Thursday for a visit.
The converted former warehouse that migrants and some U.S. agents deride as the “dog pound” for its “cages” had been set up as an overflow holding site during the Obama administration, and it is far beyond its capacity now. At the entrance, the delegation of Central American officials and U.S. Homeland Security leaders were warned about respiratory illnesses inside, but they turned down offers for masks and entered.
Patricia Marroquín, the wife of Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, approached a group of female detainees crowded into one cell. Guatemalan Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart joined her.
“Are you the president?” a tearful young woman asked Degenhart through the fencing. He said no and introduced Marroquín. “I’ve never seen you before,” another woman said to her country’s first lady, asking for her help.
The visit was meant to signal a new, more concerted regional approach to the migration crisis at the U.S. border. The United States has been pressing other countries in the region — not just Mexico — to do more to stem migration, and by bringing the Central American first ladies to see how dire things were, Homeland Security officials were hoping for a firmer commitment to act.
Degenhart confirmed what President Trump had tweeted earlier in the week: that Guatemala is preparing to sign a “Safe Third” country agreement with the United States. Such an agreement potentially would allow U.S. authorities to deport Honduran and Salvadoran asylum seekers to Guatemala, instead of processing their claims in the United States, under the theory that they should seek asylum in the first safe country they reach after fleeing their own.
“We are very close,” Degenhart said in an interview here. “We will do what we have to do to support the United States, and that will be good for our national security, too.”
Asked what steps his country would take to provide safe refuge to those fleeing violence from neighboring countries, Degenhart sounded less sure. “That is something we’ll do, if a case comes up,” he said.
The delegations from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras were hosted by Kevin McAleenan, the acting secretary of the Homeland Security Department, as well as the acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, John Sanders, and other senior U.S. border officials.
Arrests at the U.S. southern border surpassed 144,000 last month, the highest level in 13 years, and Trump, lashing out, has started severing or freezing aid to the Northern Triangle countries as punishment.
McAleenan has been pushing more, not less, cooperation with Central America, and the delegations discussed plans to combat child smuggling and immigration fraud with the deployment of rapid DNA tests at Central American border crossings to confirm familial relationships between adults and the children with whom they are migrating. There were talks to expand vaccination efforts, interdict smugglers and amplify warnings to families considering a risky journey north.
But the sight of so many children in U.S. custody was jarring. Diapers, juice boxes and cookies were stockpiled throughout the facility, and in one area of the warehouse, outside the chain-link fence, a uniformed Coast Guard officer and a team of child care contractors knelt on a carpet with toddlers who had arrived lacking parents. “Despicable Me” was playing in Spanish on a television.
Few such comforts were available for the older children, including teenage boys jammed into a holding pen with barely enough room to lie down. “We’ve been here four, five days,” said members of a group from El Salvador, pointing to others who had been waiting longer.
One 17-year-old asked U.S. officials to deport him to El Salvador, and then he began to cry: “I just want to see my mother.”
McAleenan has ordered the chain-link fence replaced with see-though plastic dividers.
A temporary overflow site several miles away, Camp Donna, was less grim. Another 750 migrants were held there in capacious, air-conditioned tents, and despite the criticism that such facilities are akin to “concentration camps,” the families in custody there had far more space and better conditions. Children played cornhole and chased balls across a squishy linoleum floor in a fake flagstone pattern. Mothers with babies lounged on mattresses watching movies.
Rodolfo Karisch, the Border Patrol chief for the Rio Grande Valley, said the facility costs more than $20 million per month to operate — more than $240 million a year. “This is not sustainable,” he said.
There were some signs that a U.S. pact reached with Mexico this month to dramatically increase its enforcement efforts appeared to be having an impact here in the lower Rio Grande Valley, the busiest stretch of the border for illegal crossings.
At a makeshift processing tent near the border set up beneath the Anzalduas International Bridge, the delegation was supposed to get a look at the way migrants are booked into custody in the moments after they cross the Rio Grande.
A group of 70 migrants came over earlier in the day, but when the buses and SUVs bringing the first ladies arrived, there were no migrants to greet. Border arrests have been falling this month, a decline consistent with historic seasonal patterns. U.S. officials say that it is too early to tell how much of that change is the result of the 100-degree heat or tightening enforcement by Mexico that includes a national guard surge and working with the United States to keep asylum seekers south of the U.S. border while they await court hearings.
The humanitarian crisis here in South Texas is far from over. Inside the Central Processing Center, teenagers and families said they had been waiting days without access to showers, hoping to be released.
Maria Yaxón had left Guatemala 18 days earlier with her son, 7, and daughter, 5. The family was en route to New York City, where her husband had already found a job. The boy was eating an apple, and his sister had peeled the sticker off the fruit to stick it to her face.
“There are no jobs in our town,” Yaxón said. “My parents drink a lot. My uncle, too. There’s no way for me to give my children a better life there.”
Ana García de Hernández, the wife of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, said the United States and Central American countries need to work closer together to generate more opportunities in the region.
“But the other factor that is driving this is that everyone has a family member in the United States they’re trying to reunite with,” she said. “We can never lose sight of the humanitarian element of this. All of these migrants are people with hopes for a better life.”
McAleenan told the Central American delegation that he is urging U.S. lawmakers to approve a $4.6 billion supplemental funding package, most of which would go to caring for underage migrants who arrive alone at the U.S. border.
When he noted that the United States is likely to spend $8 billion during the current fiscal year on care for minors at the border, Degenhart, the Guatemalan interior minister, said his government’s entire 2019 budget — for a country of 17 million people — is about $12 billion.