As Trump administration confronts migrant crisis, detention centers are clearing out

DONNA, Texas -- As the migrant crisis at the southern border hit its peak over the summer, media outlets were filled with stories of overcrowded detention centers, adults and children living in squalid conditions, and overworked and exhausted border agents.

But now, the situation on the ground has changed significantly.

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Amid a series of sweeping actions from the Trump administration -- including the expansion of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) that return migrants to Mexico to await their immigration hearings, increased cooperation with countries south of the border like Guatemala, and new border wall -- apprehensions have declined dramatically by more than 70 percent since May.

Soft-sided migrant facilities in Texas. (Adam Shaw/Fox News)

Soft-sided migrant facilities in Texas. (Adam Shaw/Fox News)

It means that a number of the soft-sided facilities here in Texas, which were packed during the summer, are now sparsely populated by comparison.

Migrants mill around in holding areas, watching movies on big-screen TVs and playing soccer in the vast empty spaces. At a facility in Donna, Texas, which new Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf toured last week, accompanied by Fox News, there were storage units with piles of clothes, food, drinks and snacks piled high for migrants brought to the center.

Supplies in a migrant detention facility in Texas. (Adam Shaw/Fox News)

Supplies in a migrant detention facility in Texas. (Adam Shaw/Fox News)

Rio Grande Valley Sector Chief Rodolfo Karisch told Fox News at the facility that the difference from the summer is dramatic. While agents had been apprehending 12,000 migrants per week in the sector at one point, now that rate is about 2,000 per week.

“The number of people we were holding here in the summer was 9,000, and if you look through the entire sector now we only have 1,000 people in custody, so it shows how numbers have steadily declined, primarily because of the assistance we've received from Mexico, but also initiatives like MPP ... that have reduced the flow,” he said. In Donna, Karisch said roughly 400 people in custody are spread across three facilities.

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What has also helped agents, specifically in terms of supplies, is the $4.6 billion emergency funding supplemental for the border that was passed in June and provided humanitarian aid for dealing with the migrant crisis.

Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf tours a migrant facility in Texas. (Adam Shaw/Fox News)

Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf tours a migrant facility in Texas. (Adam Shaw/Fox News)

"My only regret is that Congress didn't provide that supplemental funding quicker," Wolf told Fox News after the tour. "Had they provided it quicker, you'd have seen those resources up quicker and a lot of those conditions and the like would have been averted."

Helping capacity challenges is that, with methods in place to speed up deportations and send migrants to Mexico for their hearings or to Guatemala, the average stay for a migrant in detention is less than 60 hours, officials say.

To be sure, the detention facilities are a stark holding center for migrants. Simple mattresses line the floor, as guards stand watch over those inside. The centers are not where they wanted to end up in their journey north.

But conditions have improved, with officials pointing to the quality of care those seeking asylum in the U.S. receive. Officials say that apprehended migrants are given an initial medical screening in the field, then another when brought to the center. Migrants are then given clean clothes, while the clothes in which they arrived are washed and given back to them.

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“We take every precaution to make sure we can care for people as best we can, showers, we’ve got washing machines, pods where people are watching television while waiting for them to be transported elsewhere,” Karisch said.

There are also security measures in place, including rapid DNA testing when officials suspect that there is an instance of family fraud.

"We were finding about 30 percent of individuals that were coming across with children have no family ties and often were complete strangers," Karisch said. "At the height of the summer that number increased to about 50 percent but that has since lowered."

A processing room at a Texas migrant detention facility sits empty. 

A processing room at a Texas migrant detention facility sits empty. 

It is unlikely to stop the criticism that federal immigration authorities are facing. Democratic presidential hopefuls such as Sen. Bernie Sanders have called for the closing of detention centers, as well as a moratorium on deportations. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is due to rule soon on MPP, which Trump administration officials have warned could spark a fresh migrant crisis if it is shut down.

Meanwhile, Democrats are continuing to hit Trump for family separations resulting from the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on border crossings it adopted in May 2018 and then rescinded. A new report from the Homeland Security inspector general said they could not even count the total number of separations and eventual reunifications because DHS lacked computer systems to track all of them, and “various ad hoc methods” caused “widespread errors.”

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., the new chairwoman of House Oversight Committee, said in a statement that the report “pulls back the curtain on the Administration’s cruelty, incompetence, and indifference to the suffering of children who were taken from their parents under President Trump’s child separation policy.”

Pro-migrant and humanitarian groups also have expressed concern at sending migrants back to Mexico and Guatemala, saying this exposes them to risks of persecution and poor conditions.

Beds at a migrant detention facility in Texas. (Adam Shaw/Fox News)

Beds at a migrant detention facility in Texas. (Adam Shaw/Fox News)

In addition, there have been increasing reports of poor and squalid conditions in Mexico, suggesting to immigrant rights activists that the system has simply pushed these conditions south of the border.

But the Trump administration claims to be pursuing a balanced approach -- getting tough at the border while also caring for migrants in custody.

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"The men and women of Border Patrol often get wrongfully criticized -- they do fantastic and outstanding work each and every day protecting the homeland dealing with a crisis that I don't think anyone truly understands," Wolf said.

"They did the absolute very best they could and are operating what I consider just almost first-class facilities given the resources they have, caring for the migrants at the facilities and making sure they get the resources they need, food clothing, shelter, showers and the like," he said.

He noted that officers on the ground don't necessarily sign up for doing humanitarian work when they join Border Patrol, wanting instead to protect America's border.

"But you know what, they don't complain about it, they accept that's part of their job and do it each and every day," he said.

Fox News' Tyler Olson contributed to this report.