January 23, 2021

As migration, most of it asylum-seeking, increased in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, Border Patrol began keeping hundreds of families for days at a time under the Anzalduas International Bridge in Mission, Texas, while they awaited processing. The ACLU described the outdoor site as “buried deep on federal property and out of public view.”

The March 24, 2021 Los Angeles Times reported, “Up to 600 families were assembled in recent days at the site under the Anzalduas International Bridge in Mission, Texas, sleeping in the dirt, exposed to the elements, without much food or access to medical care.”

“We asked them why we were there for so long,” Karen Coello, 24, of Honduras, who had been kept at the site for three days with her 5-year-old daughter, Valeria, said Tuesday after being released to a local shelter. “All they told us was, ‘That’s your problem.’”

Border Patrol chose the location for this “Temporary Outdoor Processing Site” (TOPS) “so that agents could easily expel eligible migrants to Mexico via the bridge” using the Title 42 pandemic authority, according to the Times.

The ACLU reported on a visit to the TOPS site months later:

In late June 2021, we joined a brief official tour of the Anzalduas TOPS, during which Border Patrol representatives described the site as being used exclusively to hold families with children under 7 years old. Though we were not allowed to speak with those detained there, what we observed was deeply concerning.

The temperature was in the 90s. For the dozens of children and adults detained outdoors in the heat, only a fan and a set of overhead sprinklers provided plainly inadequate cooling. At a meeting in May, a Border Patrol representative justified holding families in the South Texas summer heat by egregiously claiming that the conditions are preferable to many migrants, who Border Patrol described as “not used to air conditioning.”

In addition to having no basic temperature controls, the TOPS has a bare-bones structure that lacks other minimal protections. Families are funneled through a series of outdoor areas surrounded by plastic fencing. We observed them being held in an area with hard benches and gravel as the only places to rest or sleep.

Border Patrol told us there is no medical staff on site beyond emergency medical personnel, and the nearest paved road to get to medical aid is a five to 10 minute drive away. Border Patrol has even given us conflicting answers about what, if any, detention standards apply to the site. This is particularly troubling since detention standards mandate a “reasonable and comfortable” temperature for those detained — contrary to the very design of the TOPS.

Just last week in the Rio Grande Valley, we interviewed recently released families with small children who reported that thousands of people were being held at the site. Every family reported spending two or three days under the bridge. Mothers shared that Border Patrol denied their pleas for medical care for sick children and that they experienced miserable conditions in high temperatures.

A report from the Kino Border Initiative (KBI) and NETWORK described the experience of two Honduran families that each spent three days in custody at TOPS in July 2021.

In January 2022 report on a July 2021 visit the Rio Grande Valley sector, the DHS Inspector-General noted that TOPS did not meet detention standards “but lessened overcrowding and health risks for detainees” (original link). The report found that “water, snacks, and food for babies and children were readily available.”

— Shaw Drake, Kate Huddleston, “Border Patrol Must Stop Holding People in an Inhumane Outside Pen Under a Highway in South Texas” (El Paso: ACLU of Texas, August 9, 2021) https://www.aclu.org/news/civil-liberties/border-patrol-must-stop-holding-people-in-an-inhumane-outside-pen-under-a-highway-in-south-texas/.

— Molly Hennessy-Fiske, “Border Patrol holds migrant families for days under a south Texas bridge” (Los Angeles, The Los Angeles Times, March 24, 2021) https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2021-03-24/texas-migrants-border-bridge.

Rio Grande Valley Area Border Patrol Struggles with High Volumes of Detainees and Cases of Prolonged Detention but Has Taken Consistent Measures to Improve Conditions in Facilities, Report OIG-22-22 (Washington: DHS Office of Inspector-General, January 27, 2022) https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2022-02/OIG-22-22-Feb22.pdf.

Sector(s): Rio Grande Valley

Agency(ies): Border Patrol

Event Type(s): Conditions in Custody, Denial of Medical Care

Accountability Status: Unknown

Victim Classification: