Depression and mass detention: What’s happening with asylum-seeking children being held at Fort Bliss

FILE PHOTO: Activists defending the rights of migrants hold a protest near Fort Bliss to call for the end of the detention of unaccompanied minors at the facility in El Paso, Texas, U.S, June 8, 2021.
FILE PHOTO: Activists defending the rights of migrants hold a protest near Fort Bliss to call for the end of the detention of unaccompanied minors at the facility in El Paso, Texas, U.S, June 8, 2021.

  • Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, is being used to hold hundreds of child asylum-seekers.
  • Detainees have complained of inhumane conditions.
  • The ACLU’s Shaw Drake told Insider he saw hundreds of kids sleeping under the same tent.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

At a military base in El Paso, Texas, hundreds of unaccompanied children who crossed the US-Mexico border to seek asylum are sleeping under one big tent. Some have been there for weeks – others were held there for months – as authorities worked to track down a relative who could take them out of government custody.

In recent court filings, children complained of insomnia, inedible food, and depression. One US lawmaker who visited the site, known as Fort Bliss, described the conditions as “absolutely unacceptable.”

It was not supposed to be like this. President Joe Biden and his administration pledged to create a “humane asylum system” – one that abandoned images of kids in cages in favor of recognizing the legal right to seek protection from violence and repression.

Shaw Drake, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Texas, has twice visited the military base that now doubles as an emergency shelter. What he saw is too many children in one confined space, conditions that make it difficult for staff to keep track of what’s even happening.

“Children shouldn’t be held in those mass, dormitory-like situations,” he said. “We certainly observed firsthand the challenges and concerns about the lack of case management and the amount of time children were spending at the facility.”

Those conditions have led some children to attempt suicide and other forms of self-harm, according to testimony filed this month.

The Biden administration insists it is doing better – and in many ways it has, having reduced the number of kids in its custody and placing them in the care of family and friends. At one point, Fort Bliss housed around 5,000 children. This week, that number fell to fewer than 800, a product of the federal government ramping up efforts to place them with relatives and legal guardians.

By contrast, Drake said, the Trump administration allowed children to languish in Border Patrol facilities that were never intended to host them. At least five children died in them between 2018 and 2019.

“Border Patrol has a long history of holding people in inhumane conditions and abusing people in their custody, so it’s certainly not an environment that is conducive for unaccompanied children to spend any time in,” Drake said.

Emergency intake shelters like the one at Fort Bliss are an improvement, a fact that could have led to some complacency under the Biden administration – or at least a confidence that progress, amid a new surge in child asylum-seekers, was sufficient in the wake of the Trump administration, which itself had hollowed out the infrastructure for dealing with them.

“I think a big piece of it is a lack of commitment to the follow-through,” Drake said. “It’s very important to stand up these facilities and get kids out of Border Patrol, but the administration needed to move more quickly past to ‘how can we actually reunite these children with their loved ones?'”

There is a need to provide shelter. “The government does have to do its due diligence to ensure that they’re releasing the child to someone who is a bonafide relative or sponsor who’s going to take care for that child appropriately,” Drake said. But right now, that process can take days or weeks to even get started.

Beyond improving conditions at Fort Bliss and elsewhere, Drake said the search should begin as soon as a child is received by Border Patrol. On-site staff from the Department of Health and Human Services could even help some avoid further detention altogether.

“When children have – and many children do – direct parents or other immediate relatives waiting for them, they could be released directly without having to be transferred to an HHS facility,” he said. “And that’s something that, to this point, this administration and past administrations have failed to do.”

Have a news tip? Email this reporter: cdavis@insider.com

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Photos capture the conditions of an overcrowded Texas facility where 4,000 migrants are housed

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Young children look out from inside a pod at the Donna Department of Homeland Security holding facility, the main detention center for unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley run by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), in Donna, Texas, Tuesday, March 30, 2021.

More than 4,000 migrants, including many children and families, are being housed in a Department of Homeland Security facility that has a capacity of 250.

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Young children lie inside a pod at the Donna Department of Homeland Security holding facility, the main detention center for unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, in Donna, Texas, Tuesday, March 30, 2021.

As thousands of migrant families and unaccompanied children have reached the US Southern border in recent weeks, President Joe Biden has faced increasing scrutiny over the administration’s lack of transparency.

For the first time on Tuesday, US Customs and Border Protection allowed two journalists from The Associated Press and a crew from CBS to tour the Donna, Texas, facility in the Rio Grande Valley. 

The visit revealed a “severely” overcrowded tent facility with a capacity of 250, housing more than 4,000 migrants crammed into pods, according to the AP.

 

 

 

 

 

Kids are being housed by the hundreds in eight small pods. Many had more than 500 kids in them.

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Young children look out from inside a pod at the Donna Department of Homeland Security holding facility, the main detention center for unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley run by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), in Donna, Texas, Tuesday, March 30, 2021.

Unaccompanied migrant children are processed in the tent facilities before being taken to Department of Health and Human shelters and then placed with family members or sponsors.

When journalists visited Tuesday, hundreds of kids were being housed in eight small pods about 3,200 square feet in size, the AP reported. Many reportedly had more than 500 kids in them.

 

US Border Patrol in the Rio Grande Valley told the AP that 250 to 300 children enter daily, but far fewer leave.

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Young children rest inside a pod at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility, the main detention center for unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley, in Donna, Texas, Tuesday, March 30, 2021.

 

 

The youngest children are kept in a large play pen and monitored by a caretaker.

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Monitored by a caretaker, young unaccompanied migrants, aged from 3 to 9, watch television inside a playpen at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility.

Unaccompanied migrant children between the ages of 3 to 9 are kept separate from the other detainees and are housed in a small playpen with mats on the floor for sleeping, according to the AP. 

 

When the migrants arrive at the facility, they wait to enter the intake area and be processed.

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Newly migrants wait to enter the intake area at the Donna Processing Center, run by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP).

They are given a health inspection and checked for lice first.

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A young migrant gets treated for possible lice before entering the intake area at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility.

Their hair is hosed down and checked for lice before they enter the crowded facility. Minors are checked for scabies, fever, and other ailments, according to the AP. 

Nurse practitioners also give psychological tests to the unaccompanied minors, asking if they have experienced suicidal thoughts.

The facility removes all shoelaces to avoid any harm, the outlet reported. 

 

 

 

COVID-19 tests are only administered to those who show symptoms.

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Young migrants wait to be tested for COVID-19 at the Donna Department of Homeland Security holding facility.

After the medical inspections, the migrants are taken to a second intake room where they receive notices to appear in immigration court.

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Young migrants get processed at the intake area of the Donna Department of Homeland Security holding facility, the main detention center for unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley, in Donna, Texas, Tuesday, March 30, 2021.

 

 

 

Border agents then allow the migrants to speak via phone with a US contact if they have one.

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Migrants speak to their relatives inside a phone booth after being processed at the intake area.

Migrants older than 14 are fingerprinted and have their photos taken. Younger children do not.

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A migrant and her daughter have their biometric data entered at the intake area

The children are given a barcoded bracelet that shows the history of their medical checks and showers.

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Young unaccompanied migrants, wait for their turn at the secondary processing station inside the U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility.

Most of the unaccompanied minors have had long journeys to reach the border, including sections on foot, and are eager to rest.

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Young children stand or sleep insides a pod at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection holding facility, the main detention center for unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley, in Donna, Texas, Tuesday, March 30, 2021.

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Human-rights groups are urging the Biden administration to get children out of the makeshift Border Patrol facilities

border patrol migrant children temporary processing facility in Donna, Texas
A temporary processing facility in Donna, Texas, seen on March 17, 2021.

  • Human-rights groups are calling out the Biden administration for crowded Border Patrol facilities.
  • The government is holding migrant children in “inappropriate” detention centers, human-rights groups told Insider.
  • These facilities have not yet been seen by journalists, but government-shared videos show children in crowded spaces and sleeping on mats just inches off the floor.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

As shocking videos and images began to emerge showing the inside of various Border Patrol facilities where migrant children are being held in Texas, human-rights groups are calling out the crowded conditions.

These organizations say the holding facilities are inappropriate for children, and they’re urging the Biden administration to find different solutions to temporary migrant housing.

On Monday, Rep. Henry Cuellar shared with Insider photos that gave the public a first look into migrant facilities under the Biden administration.

In these photos, dozens of masked children can be seen lying down on gray mats. Some are crowded into corners, despite the threat of the coronavirus spreading. Others are simply sitting on the floor.

migrant children border patrol facility us mexico border biden administration
A Border Patrol facility in Donna, Texas, housing migrant children on the weekend of March 20, 2021.

On Tuesday, US Customs and Border Protection, under pressure from journalists who have repeatedly requested access into the facilities, posted two videos of the inside of various holding centers that were taken last week. The Biden administration has so far barred journalists from viewing and entering the facilities, citing privacy and coronavirus concerns.

These government-produced and -released videos showed that dozens of children are being held in crowded conditions that lawmakers believe will evolve into a humanitarian crisis. Many children are seen sleeping on mats just inches off the floor. Groups of them sit in plastic-enclosed spaces, clutching foil blankets as they sleep. There are few adults in each space.

It’s these conditions that human-rights organizations are calling inappropriate.

“Border Patrol stations are not an appropriate place to hold children and asylum seekers,” Clara Long, associate director at Human Rights Watch, told Insider.

Former President Donald Trump has been out of office for two months now. But experts say his administration has had a lasting impact on how the Biden administration is navigating immigration policy.

“What we’re seeing is the consequence of dedicated negligence from the previous administration – a lack of planning and resources invested in facilities to welcome children seeking safety, who were already arriving,” said Denise Bell, Amnesty International’s researcher for refugee and migrant rights.

“And that is where we must focus: the children who are seeking safety,” Bell added. “The conditions need to be much better and much faster.”

Temporary Processing Facilities cbp migrant children border patrol
A Border Patrol temporary processing facility in Donna, Texas, for migrant children and families, pictured March 17, 2021.

During the 2020 presidential election, Biden positioned himself as a pro-immigration candidate focused on bettering the system for incoming migrants.

In January 2019, for example, Biden slammed Trump’s idea to build a wall along the southern border. “We need border security but that’s not the border security we need,” he said.

Now that he’s in office, Biden is working to deliver on promises he made on the campaign trail, enacting measures to reverse controversial Trump-era policies.

These key changes put forth by the Biden administration, however, have led to thousands of migrants – and many unaccompanied children – traveling to the US-Mexico border from Central America as they flee persecution, violence, and poverty in their home countries.

According to senior administration officials, CBP had approximately 4,500 unaccompanied minors in holding as of Thursday, while the Department of Health and Human Services has more than 9,000 children in its care.

In an attempt to mitigate the surge of migrants, the Biden administration has opened up various Border Patrol facilities for temporary housing.

“The Biden administration inherited a broken, diminished system,” Long said. “It’s not surprising that things are taking a while to get in to hand. What we need to see from the Biden administration is consistent progress toward the goals it has articulated: humane and dignified border reception, holistic policy responses to migration and access to protection for those who need it.”

For its part, the Biden administration is taking steps to limit immigration to the border.

The State Department has created more than 17,100 ads since January 21 to discourage people from migrating. These ads have reached about 15 million people, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said during a Monday briefing.

It’s not clear whether this approach to limit immigration to the United States is working.

“This is just part of our effort to send a clear message,” Psaki said. “But there is no question that funding is needed to address the root causes in these countries.”

White House officials and immigration experts have so far refrained from calling the surge a crisis. But the Biden administration recognizes that the facilities are not meant for long-term accommodations.

“These Border Patrol facilities are not places made for children,” Psaki said. “They are not places that we want children to be staying for an extended period of time. Our alternative is to send children back on this treacherous journey – that is not, in our view, the right choice to make.”

Detention is psychologically damaging to children

The children are held in border facilities as they await transfer to other federal agencies. The government is required to transfer migrant children to Health and Human Services custody within 72 hours. But with the influx of unaccompanied minors coming to the US-Mexico border, nearly 3,000 children have been held beyond that limit, CBS News reported.

Temporary Processing Facilities cbp migrant children border patrol
A Border Patrol temporary processing facility in Donna, Texas, for migrant children and families, pictured March 17, 2021.

“Even short stays in detention centers have the potential to be traumatic experiences,” said Kathryn Humphreys, assistant professor of psychology and human development at Vanderbilt University.

“We know from our research on orphanage care that children fare best when they have reduced exposure to group-based care and long-term family-based placements when they form relationships with those that are their parents or parent-figures,” she added.

CPB and HHS custody and detention centers qualify as group-based care. Such environments normally do not allow children to form the type of relationships with adults that help them grow and develop, Humphreys told Insider.

Adults help “co-regulate children, both emotionally and physiologically,” she said. Going without these trusted adults, even for short periods of time, can lead to stress in children and them falling behind developmentally, socially, and academically.

The Biden administration is “obligated to hold children in conditions that meet United States and international standards that support their best interests,” Bell of Amnesty International said. “Children must be held in conditions that meet their best interests and safely reunified with families and sponsors much more quickly.”

“This is a time for transformation – as the administration adapts right now, it must also set in motion the changes needed for a new system where detention is not assumed and children are with their parents and sponsors,” Bell added.

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Photos show the crowded conditions where migrant kids are being held at the US-Mexico border

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Inside the Texas Border Patrol facility

  • Photos, which Rep. Henry Cuellar shared, show crowded conditions in a Texas Border Patrol facility.
  • An estimated 13,500 migrant children were in government custody as of Thursday.
  • The Biden administration hasn’t let journalists independently visit the facilities.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.
The number of unaccompanied migrant children detained at the US-Mexico border has continued to rise throughout the first three months of 2021.

migrant children border patrol facility us mexico border biden administration
A Border Patrol facility in Donna, Texas, housing migrant children on the weekend of March 20, 2021.

According to senior administration officials, US Customs and Border Protection had approximately 4,500 unaccompanied minors in holding as of Thursday, while the Department of Health and Human Services has more than 9,000 children currently in its care.

The Biden administration has opened up various Border Patrol facilities to house these incoming migrants.

At one facility in Donna, Texas, pictured above, adults and children sit in what appears to be makeshift rooms separating out groups of people.

Each room is cordoned off by what looks like a plastic enclosure, drawing comparisons to jail cells. Journalists have so far been prohibited from viewing and entering the facilities. These photos, shared with Insider by Rep. Henry Cuellar, provide insight into the conditions.

Dozens of masked children can be seen lying down on gray mats. Some are crowded into corners, despite the threat of the coronavirus spreading. Others appear to sit on the floor.

Nearly 3,000 children detained by Border Patrol have been held beyond the 72-hour limit permitted by federal law before a child must be moved to an HHS facility, CBS News reported.

The situation at the border is quickly turning into a political firestorm, and is poised to generate more concern as people see the conditions inside the facilities.

migrant children border patrol facility us mexico border biden administration
A Border Patrol facility in Donna, Texas, housing migrant children on the weekend of March 20, 2021.

Key changes — such as measures to reverse controversial Trump-era policies — have led to thousands of migrants, and many unaccompanied children, to come to the US-Mexico border from Central America.

Republicans, including the former president, have taken the surge as an opportunity to bash the Biden administration.

Former President Donald Trump in a statement derided Biden’s newly instated immigration agenda.

He said the reversal of his own policies led to a rise in migration at the southern border.

Lawmakers fear that the surge will become a humanitarian crisis, as Border Patrol agents, for example, struggle to care or provide resources for incoming groups. The potential spread of the coronavirus among these groups of people only exacerbates that concern.

The Biden administration has implemented changes that aim to treat migrants fairly and humanely, in an attempt to overhaul Trump’s immigration policies.

migrant children border patrol facility us mexico border biden administration
A Border Patrol facility in Donna, Texas, housing migrant children on the weekend of March 20, 2021.

In a Monday press briefing, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki refrained from calling the surge a “crisis” at the border, saying the White House is working with different government agencies including HHS to “ensure we’re following COVID protocols.”

“Children presenting at our border who are fleeing violence, who are fleeing prosecution, who are fleeing terrible situations, is not a crisis,” she said. “We feel that it is our responsibility to humanely approach this circumstance and make sure they are treated and put into conditions that are safe.”

Psaki also insisted that the Biden administration wants to “make sure the media has access to these sites,” but did not give a concrete timeline on when that would happen.

“These photos show what we’ve long been saying, which is that these Border Patrol facilities are not places made for children,” she added. “They are not places that we want children to be staying for an extended period of time. Our alternative is to send children back on this treacherous journey — that is not, in our view, the right choice to make.”

The State Department is broadcasting to people in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Brazil, and Mexico that now is not a good time to come to the US, but the administration still has to deal with all the migrant children who are currently here.

migrant children border patrol facility us mexico border biden administration
A Border Patrol facility in Donna, Texas, housing migrant children on the weekend of March 20, 2021.

Psaki also played up the strategies the Biden administration is doling out to cap the number of people traveling to the US, particularly from the Northern Triangle countries.

The State Department, for example, has created more than 17,100 ads since January 21 to discourage people from migrating. These ads have reached about 15 million people, Psaki said on Monday.

It’s not clear whether this approach to limit immigration to the United States is working.

“This is just part of our effort to send a clear message,” Psaki said. “But there is no question that funding is needed to address the root causes in these countries.”

In anticipation of a surge in migrant traffic, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been ordered to facilitate a “government-wide effort” that would “safely receive, shelter, and transfer unaccompanied children who make the dangerous journey to the US southwest border.”

Biden has a number of solutions he could try to implement to deal with the thousands of migrant children coming to the US-Mexico border. Experts recommend against holding kids in jail-like settings.

migrant children border patrol facility us mexico border biden administration
A Border Patrol facility in Donna, Texas, housing migrant children on the weekend of March 20, 2021.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas also said the surge is not equivalent to a crisis at the border and that the administration is strategizing potential ways to contain it.

That could take the form of opening more facilities near the southern border, for example.

Experts generally agree that this surge is not a crisis yet, but can turn into one.

To prevent a real crisis, experts told Insider’s Erin Snodgrass there are numerous steps the Biden administration could follow:

  1. Revoke Title 42, the Trump-era order that effectively halted all crossings at the border in the name of COVID-19 prevention.
  2. Increase federal funding and resources to both address the growing numbers of migrants and avoid the horrific conditions that often come with influxes.
  3. Avoid placing children in carceral settings or unlicensed facilities. They should instead be kept in child-appropriate settings with small group settings and a high staff-to-child ratio.

Insider’s Erin Snodgrass contributed to this report.

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Homeland Security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas says the ‘border is closed’ but the US ‘will not expel young, vulnerable children’

Alejandro Mayorkas
Homeland Security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas speaks speaks at a White House press briefing on March 1, 2021.

  • Homeland Security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Sunday said that “the border in closed.”
  • Mayorkas said that the US would not send back “vulnerable children” who have arrived at the border.
  • The wave of migrants presents a major challenge for President Joe Biden’s young administration.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Homeland Security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Sunday said “the border is closed” in response to the surge in migrants at the US-Mexico border, while staunchly defending the Biden administration’s policy of not expelling young arrivals.

During an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Mayorkas said that while the US was sending back families and adults who have attempted to cross into the country, it would not follow the same practice for “young, vulnerable children.”

Mayorkas said the administration was seeking new policies to address the influx of migrants from Mexico and Central American countries. He also criticized former President Donald Trump for having “dismantled the orderly, humane and efficient way” of approaching cases with young children.

“We have a short-term plan, a medium-term plan, and a long-term plan, and the president and I have spoken to this repeatedly,” he said. “We will not expel into the Mexican desert, for example, three orphaned children whom I saw over the last two weeks. We just won’t do that. That’s not who we are.”

While the southern border has long been a source of illegal entry into the US, the wave of migrants presents a major challenge for President Joe Biden’s young administration.

Read more: Meet the presidential confidants, Delaware’s closely-knit and well-positioned congressional delegation, Joe Biden’s entrusted with cementing his legacy

US border authorities apprehended over 100,000 migrants in February, marking a month-to-month increase of 28% from January, according to US Customs and Border Protection.

Biden’s commitment to a humane approach to immigration has been criticized by congressional Republicans, and progressive lawmakers like Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York have complained about the administration reopening a notorious Trump-era Texas facility to house young migrants.

Mayorkas was also pressed about media access to border facilities, which he said the administration was “working on,” but emphasized that border authorities were “not focused on ride-alongs right now.”

“We are still in the midst of the pandemic,” he said. “Border Patrol agents are focused on operations, on securing the border, on addressing the needs of vulnerable children.”

He added: “We are focused on our operations, in removing children from those crowded Border Patrol stations to the Health and Human Services facilities that can best shelter them. And we are also working on providing access so the American public can in a safe way, without jeopardizing our operations, see what is going on.”

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Trump’s crackdown on the US-Mexico border has been a moneymaker for border agents working with traffickers

FILE PHOTO: A police officer gives a leaflet with information about coronavirus disease (COVID-19) to a person entering to Mexico from the United States, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico March 29, 2020. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez
A police officer gives a leaflet with information about COVID-19 to a person entering Mexico in Ciudad Juarez, March 29, 2020.

  • President Donald Trump has cracked down on the US-Mexico border throughout his time office, increasing enforcement and putting up new barriers to entry.
  • But instead of stopping illicit traffic across the border, those tighter restrictions have likely facilitated the corruption that criminal groups rely on to move drugs and people into the US.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Ciudad Juarez, MEXICO – President Donald Trump’s crackdown on the US-Mexico border hasn’t stopped illicit traffic crossing it or deterred officials who secretly help it across.

Mexican drug cartels have been paying more money to more US agents than ever before in order to move drugs and people across the border, according to documents and sources who spoke to Insider.

The Trump administration has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to virtually close the border. Trump has built and often bragged about 400 miles of new border wall, installed dozens of surveillance cameras manned by the military, and boosted the number of border agents.

But none of that has had the desired effect: Traffickers have paid millions of dollars to US border agents to keep drugs and people flowing throughout Trump’s time in office.

“We pay as much as $10,000 to a migra [Border Patrol officer] only to look the other way while we are using a tunnel to smuggle drugs and to tell us of new trends on surveillance,” said a Mexican woman in charge of smuggling operations for a drug cartel in El Paso, Texas.

As Trump tightened surveillance on the border, their costs went up.

border wall
Contractors erect a section of 30-foot high border wall along the Colorado River in Yuma, Arizona, September 10, 2019.

“We used to pay no more than $5,000 to a single agent a month or every two months, but now we are paying twice that every month for a migra to give some information,” the woman told Insider.

The cartel operative, who asked not to be identified to avoid retribution, said cartels not only have ties to the Border Patrol but to CBP officers at the international bridges as well.

“Some of them provide us with the shift role so we know who is gonna be working where on that week and plan our shipment. That way we know if one of the agents working [with us] is gonna be on a shift and exactly on which lane number,” she said.

In addition to bribes with money, cartels use young girls, according to a Mexican diplomatic source, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly.

“They are bribing CBP officers on ports of entry with girls. The girls start hanging out with them and they convince the officers to let illegal cargo through,” the source said.

The cartel operative in El Paso confirmed that was a method to entice border agents.

Border agents “love alcohol and women,” she said. “We started inviting some of the agents to party across the border, in a house we have in Juarez [in Mexico], and we set him up. At the beginning the officer working for us started because we were threatening him with showing his pictures with an underage girl to his wife, but later he learned to love money.”

FILE PHOTO: A woman touches a family member through the border fence between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, United States, after a bi-national Mass in support of migrants in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, February 15, 2016. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez
A woman in Mexico touches a family member through the border fence between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, after a bi-national Mass in support of migrants, February 15, 2016.

Stricter controls at the border are directly responsible for an uptick in corruption cases, most of them related to organized crime, according to David Jancsics, a professor at San Diego State University and author of the 2020 report “Corruption on the US-Mexico border.”

“Tighter border security may further increase the level of this type of bribery. A trust-based strategic conspiracy between the corrupt partners is already the dominant form of border corruption in the United States,” Jancsics said.

Jancsics’ report estimates that workers with the Department of Homeland Security accepted $15 million of bribes over a 10-year period.

“By the logic I would say with Trump the corruption must be worse than before, but it’s very difficult to say. We only know of people arrested, which are small numbers – the tip of the iceberg,” said Jancsics.

During the Obama administration, cases of misconduct among border officers dropped steadily. But since 2017, when Trump took office, cases have reached a five-year high, according to a recent internal Customs and Border Patrol report.

There were 286 total arrests during fiscal year 2018 – 268 CBP employees arrested twice, one employee arrested four times, and one employee arrested five times.

The charges include drug smuggling, bribery, theft, and sharing classified government data, records show.

“As an Agency charged with law enforcement activities, CBP regards any violation of law by its employees as being inconsistent with and contrary to its law enforcement mission,” the CBP report states.

During 2020, at least a dozen CBP employees were arrested on suspicion of working directly with criminal organizations at the border, according to media releases.

Trump and border patrol
President Donald Trump with US Customs and Border Protection officers at McAllen International Airport in McAllen, Texas, January 10, 2019.

In August, a Border Patrol agent in Arizona was arrested on suspicion of trafficking drugs for a Mexican criminal organization. The same month, a US border agent was arrested in Juarez and accused of smuggling 30 rounds of ammunition, a loaded firearm magazine, and a bulletproof vest.

In September, six border agents were arrested on suspicion of stealing cocaine and marijuana from dealers to sell in the US. That month, a CBP officer in Laredo was arrested in connection with four murders and one kidnapping.

Customs and Border Protection did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Jenn Budd, a former Border Patrol agent in San Diego, said corruption is part of Border Patrol culture.

“To my knowledge, no other agency is as bad as the Border Patrol in terms of corruption. Since Trump took office he has empowered corrupt agents. They feel Trump is one of them and they can do whatever they want,” Budd said.

Budd worked with former border agent Raul Villarreal, who was arrested in Tijuana in October 2008 and convicted four years later of running a human-smuggling ring that brought hundreds of immigrants across the US-Mexico border illegally.

“It still is very common for Border Patrol supervisors to smuggle drugs or people using their own official vehicles. There are agents that have cartel connections before even entering BP,” Budd said.

Budd, now a whistleblower about Border Patrol corruption, thinks management is responsible for corruption and abuse inside the agencies.

“I’ve been advocating in Washington for the Border Patrol and CBP [to] be managed by an external agency. That would be the only way out,” Budd told Insider.

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