The detained migrants call it the “hielera,” Spanish for icebox.
It is a metal-sided detention room which the detainees complain is kept painfully cold. Border Patrol insists it is kept cold for health reasons.
The sign above the door reads “Capacity: 35.” On April 12, when I visited this El Paso, Texas, Border Patrol facility, there were close to 150 men in the room.
The large, heavy glass window on the cell gives you a clear view of the detainees. They stand shoulder to shoulder. But for benches along the walls, which accommodate a small number, there is no room for the men standing to sit or lie down. Meals are provided to the standing migrants to eat in the cell.
In the back of the cell is a commode with a 4-foot wall to provide some privacy. Twice a day, the cellmates are marched out for 45 minutes while the cleaning crew disinfects the toilet area. Fights have broken out over access to the toilet.
An El Paso Border Patrol agent told me these detainees were arrested for crossing the border illegally. They should be referred to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for investigation, processing, release or deportation. But ICE will not accept all of them promptly, so many will wait from three days to three weeks in “the icebox” for a transfer to ICE.
Next to the “Capacity: 35” icebox are other smaller cells similarly crowded with male detainees, and next to those are cells crowded with women. One of the women’s cells had a sign reading “Capacity: 16.” I counted about 75 women in the cell.
Just outside this building, hundreds of men, women and children — who were brought in from the border hours before — stand in long lines waiting to provide biographical information, go through a basic medical evaluation and fill baby bottles with formula. These migrants are at the end of a long and dangerous journey, and this preliminary process leads everyone to a table where four officials write down their information. The approach seems slow and clearly understaffed.
Standing in line, a young mother holding a 1-year-old child tells us of her monthlong journey to escape Honduras and the threats of the narco gangsters. A thin, young Honduran woman, pregnant and close to delivering her first child, stands patiently in line. The young father-to-be hovers behind her holding two disposable diapers. Last night they came to our border looking for protection. When asked why she made this journey, she tells us she was threatened when her husband refused to work for the gangs. She tells us her family sold everything to pay the smugglers who brought them to our border.
The Border Patrol agent who guides me through this Border Patrol station, and another one nearby known as Station No. 1, points out food, diapers and formula stacked in every corner and in refrigerators and freezers. He tells me that he and his colleagues are caring professionals who are pained by the suffering of the migrants and angry at the unfair criticism they often face for trying to cope with the breakdown at our borders. As he walks through the crowds held in tents at Station No. 1, he points out that the migrants do not shrink away in fear. He tells me that as a father of three young daughters, he thinks of his girls every day as he faces waves of infants and toddlers who come to the border his agents patrol.
Included in the omnibus appropriation bill that I helped write this year was more than $400 million for humanitarian assistance at the border. Caring for the children, pregnant women and others with illness must be our highest priority, but we can do much more to make sure, even in the midst of political controversy, that our treatment of these desperate people reflects who we are as Americans.
When the president blocks all assistance to the Northern Triangle countries — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — and shuts down avenues for legal migration, he guarantees more refugees will flee to our border. When he threatens to shut our border points of entry, he threatens our critical trade in agricultural goods, Caterpillar machinery and thousands of other businesses as well as American workers who count on commerce with Mexico. When he talks about dumping these migrants in sanctuary cities, he shows his contempt for their plight. When he uses words like “murderers,” “rapists” and “invasion,” he appeals to base emotions of fear and hate. At every turn, this president responds to this heartbreaking humanitarian challenge at our border with threats and meanness that will only make this worse for the migrants and our nation.
Last month in America, two major religions observed holy days: the start of Passover for those of the Jewish faith and Easter for Christians. In both faith traditions, the gathering of families is a significant part of this time of reflection. Blessed with time together with my own family, the faces of the families behind the barbed wire in El Paso stayed with me.
Dick Durbin is the senior U.S. senator from Illinois. He wrote this article for the Chicago Tribune.