Largest Migrant Processing Center In U.S. Briefly Shutdown After Flu Cases

May 22, 2019
Originally published on May 22, 2019 4:03 pm
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U.S. Customs and Border Protection briefly shut down its largest migrant processing center in south Texas after 32 migrants there became ill with the flu. This is the same facility where a 16-year-old Guatemalan boy became sick before he died Monday at another Border Patrol station. Thousands of migrants are coming across the southern border every day. Many of them are vulnerable to illness. NPR's John Burnett reports from McAllen, Texas.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Customs and Border Protection says 32 migrants tested positive for the flu at its sprawling Central Processing Center, the busiest in south Texas. Some migrants were taken to the hospital, others isolated at nearby Border Patrol stations. The processing center reopened this afternoon. A senior CBP official told reporters today that this detention facility and others along the border have been thoroughly cleaned.

More than a dozen Central American migrants interviewed at a nearby Catholic charities shelter described the dire conditions inside the CBP holding facility they just left.

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BURNETT: The shelter itself feels like a refugee camp. The hallways echo with the sounds of unhappy children and smell of stale sweat. In order, this is Darwin Caballero, Carmen Juarez and Mefi Fuentes.

DARWIN CABALLERO: (Through interpreter) There are sick people. They have coughs and colds - mainly the children. They are the most vulnerable to becoming ill.

CARMEN JUAREZ: (Through interpreter) We slept on the hard ground under the stars - no mattresses, just a silver blanket, about 300 of us outside. My daughter had a fever, and that's why they asked us to sleep outside. The kids were getting sicker.

MEFI FUENTES: (Through interpreter) I slept outside for five days on cement. It was rough. We're poor, but I've never experienced conditions like that in my whole life.

BURNETT: The McAllen Central Processing Center normally holds up to 1,500 detainees, but lately it's been packed with nearly twice that many. That's according to a veteran Border Patrol agent who works inside the center. He asked not to be named because he's not authorized to speak for the agency. He says he's not at all surprised at the flu outbreak. He said there's no handwashing facilities, no showers, and the smell is horrendous. He says they've run out of room. They're corralling detainees in garages.

This is where Carlos Hernandez Vazquez was taken after he crossed the river into Texas on May 13. The 16-year-old from Guatemala spent six days in custody even though federal law says underage migrants must be transferred to child-friendly shelters within 72 hours. On Sunday, a nurse practitioner diagnosed Hernandez with the flu and gave him Tamiflu. Then he was moved to a nearby Border Patrol station because he was contagious. There, medical personnel checked on him at 6 a.m. Monday and found him unresponsive.

Ana Lucia Fernandez, an official at the Guatemalan consulate in McAllen, said she's talked to Carlos' older brother who made the trek from Guatemala with him. They were separated at the border.

ANA LUCIA FERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: "The family has indicated to me that the young man did not have health problems during his journey," she says. This grueling migrant trail from Central America to CBP detention creates the perfect storm for getting sick, says Dr. Dolly Sevier, a pediatrician in Brownsville. She says she's not surprised by the flu outbreak at a detention facility. She's treated patients, including children released from Border Patrol custody.

DOLLY SEVIER: What I do know is that they definitely come out of there very dehydrated, you know? I think they're just not getting enough fluids.

BURNETT: Before they even cross into the U.S., many migrant families don't get enough to eat or drink on the journey, and they can spend time confined in cramped, unhealthy stash houses in Mexico. Then, Dr. Sevier says, the conditions of detention in the U.S. can make everything worse. For instance, the Border Patrol cranks up the air conditioning and its holding cells - they say to cut down on germs and keep people comfortable in the Texas heat. But detainees universally call them freezers.

SEVIER: And I would recommend that they not have them in freezing conditions when they arrive, and I recommended that they appropriately hydrate them. Those two steps would probably cut their illnesses by a significant percent.

BURNETT: CBP maintains its detention facilities meet all government standards. The agency says it is overwhelmed and needs more resources. In the last year, some 200,000 migrants have been detained in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, the nation's busiest crossing spot.

Hernandez is the fifth migrant youth to die since December after being apprehended by CBP. The other four died in hospitals. Hernandez is the only one found dead in a Border Patrol cell. Twenty-six U.S. senators and the ACLU have called on the inspector general of Homeland Security to investigate overcrowded conditions at CBP detention facilities, especially those used for minors and families. John Burnett, NPR News, McAllen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.