Hungry, Scared and Sick: Inside the Migrant Detention Center in Clint, Tex.
CLINT, Tex. — Since the Border Patrol opened its station in Clint, Tex., in 2013, it was a fixture in this West Texas farm town. Separated from the surrounding cotton fields and cattle pastures by a razor-wire fence, the station stood on the town’s main road, near a feed store, the Good News Apostolic Church and La Indita Tortillería. Most people around Clint had little idea of what went on inside. Agents came and went in pickup trucks; buses pulled into the gates with the occasional load of children apprehended at the border, four miles south.
But inside the secretive site that is now on the front lines of the southwest border crisis, the men and women who work there were grappling with the stuff of nightmares.
Outbreaks of scabies, shingles and chickenpox were spreading among the hundreds of children who were being held in cramped cells, agents said. The stench of the children’s dirty clothing was so strong it spread to the agents’ own clothing — people in town would scrunch their noses when they left work. The children cried constantly. One girl seemed likely enough to try to kill herself that the agents made her sleep on a cot in front of them, so they could watch her as they were processing new arrivals.
“It gets to a point where you start to become a robot,” said a veteran Border Patrol agent who has worked at the Clint station since it was built. He described following orders to take beds away from children to make more space in holding cells, part of a daily routine that he said had become “heartbreaking.”
The little-known Border Patrol facility at Clint has suddenly become the public face of the chaos on America’s southern border, after immigration lawyers began reporting on the children they saw — some of them as young as 5 months old — and the filthy, overcrowded conditions in which they were being held.
Border Patrol leaders, including Aaron Hull, the outspoken chief patrol agent of the agency’s El Paso Sector, have disputeddescriptions of degrading conditions inside Clint and other migrant detention sites around El Paso, claiming that their facilities were rigorously and humanely managed even after a spate of deaths of migrant children in federal custody.
But a review of the operations of the Clint station, near El Paso’s eastern edge, shows that the agency’s leadership knew for months that some children had no beds to sleep on, no way to clean themselves and sometimes went hungry. Its own agents had raised the alarm, and found themselves having to accommodate even more new arrivals.
The accounts of what happened at Clint and at nearby border facilities are based on dozens of interviews by The New York Times and The El Paso Times of current and former Border Patrol agents and supervisors; lawyers, lawmakers and aides who visited the facility; and an immigrant father whose children were held there. The review also included sworn statements from those who spent time at El Paso border facilities, inspection reports and accounts from neighbors in Clint.
The conditions at Clint represent a conundrum not just for local officials, but for Congress, where lawmakers spent weeks battling over the terms of a $4.6 billion humanitarian aid package for facilities at the border. The lack of federal investment, some argue, is why the sites have been so strained. But the reports of squalor prompted several Democratic lawmakers to vote against the final bill, which did not have oversight and enforcement provisions.
By all accounts, the Border Patrol’s attempt to continue making room for new children at Clint even as it was unable to find space to send them to better-equipped facilities was a source of concern for many people who worked there.
“I can’t tell you the number of times I would talk to agents and they would get teary-eyed,” said one agent, a veteran of 13 years with Border Patrol who worked at Clint.
Mary E. González, a Democratic state lawmaker who toured the Clint station last week, said that Border Patrol agents told her they had repeatedly warned their superiors about the overcrowded facility, but that federal officials had taken no action.
“They said, ‘We were ringing the alarms, we were ringing the alarms, and nobody was listening to us’ — agents told me that,” Ms. González said. “I genuinely believe that the higher-ups made the Clint situation happen.”
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