A temporary, soft-sided facility that the Border Patrol will use to process asylum seekers arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border is ready for operation in Tucson. The agency unveiled the space to media and members of the public during a tour on Wednesday.
The 80,000 square foot space is located just east of the Tucson International Airport and has capacity to hold up to 500 people, though the agency says COVID precautions will reduce that by about half. The facility is the second of its kind in Arizona, a similar structure became operational in Yuma earlier this month.
In an address ahead of the tour on Thursday, Tucson Sector Interim Chief Patrol Agent John Modlin said the agency asked for the facilities amid a larger number of children arriving along the U.S.-Mexico border to apply for asylum.
After they’re taken into custody, migrants are usually processed at Border Patrol stations around Arizona. But Modlin said those facilities are not equipped to handle families or children.
"Our facilities...are not built to house that population...it's basically small holding cells that are meant to hold people for short periods of time," he said. "They're not made for children."
The agency's short-term facilities in Arizona were the subject of a years-long lawsuit that alleged migrants in custody there faced inhumane conditions and a lack of basic necessities. The litigation limited the number of people allowed to be held there.
Customs and Border Protection data shows almost 19,000 children were taken into custody last month, double the amount in February. Agent Robert Buschell with the Tucson Sector said the new facility will provide more space.
"We have seen a pretty dramatic increase in terms of the number of unaccompanied children we are encountering. I would say that the family units haven’t been as high compared to last year," he said. "I think that this place just increases the capacity that we already have...the workflow is the same; it's just a larger area for us to do that."
The new facility includes a medical unit, housing pods, showers, a phone bank and laundry and recreational areas. Families and kids are supposed to be held there for no more than 72 hours.
Juanita Molina with the advocacy group Border Action Network said it’s crucial to provide adequate care during that window.
"People forget the journey that people endure in order to get here," she said. "People are already at a deficit, they are injured, they may have been without food or water for extended periods of time."
Buschell said asylum seekers taken into custody at the facility will be given an initial health screening, but won't be tested for COVID-19.
New York Company Deployed Resources, LLC was awarded a contract of up to $105 million to build and operate the facility. Agency officials say Tucson's facility is expected to cost just over $34 million, while the Yuma facility will cost around $38 million.
A spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection said the facilities have an initial contract to operate for four months, but could be extended depending on need.