US Border Patrol needs extra toilets to handle all the families it’s detaining

The US Border Patrols warehouse-turned-migrant-processing-center in McAllen, Texas
The US Border Patrols warehouse-turned-migrant-processing-center in McAllen, Texas
Image: REUTERS/Loren Elliott
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The central US Border Patrol detainee-processing facility in McAllen, Texas has added extra porta-potties and sinks to handle what it describes as an “increase in detainees,” government purchasing data show.

Between now and Sept. 28, 2019, the Border Patrol will be renting at least 34 portable toilets and seven hand-washing stations to be used by as many as 1,500 detainees, according to a contract extension logged in a federal database. The total expenditure, which includes new costs to “add additional equipment,” is listed at $959,198.48.

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Last year’s toilet-and-sink rental, for the same amount of time and in the same location, came to $730,328.28.

“The United States Border Patrol (USBP), Rio Grande Valley (RGV) Sector has a requirement for the lease of Portable Toilets, Hand Washing Stations for support of the new USBP Centralized Processing Center (CPC),” say documents issued at the start of the contract’s first phase. “There currently are no fixed toilets, hand washing and hand sanitizer facilities within the CPC. The portable toilets, washing stations and hand sanitizers services are essential in maintaining a clean and healthy environment for detainees that are classified as Unaccompanied Children (UAC) and/or Family Units (FMU).”

The toilets will “be in close proximity to the detainees,” say the filings. “This means that all the units will be located inside the CPC holding area among the detainee population.” They will be “roll-around type units,” serviced outside the building, with ”a minimum twelve (12) inch vent stack in order to be connected to the fixed exhaust ventilation system in the CPC.”

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The so-called “CPC” is a 77,000-square-foot facility known colloquially as “Ursula” because of its location on McAllen’s West Ursula Avenue. Situated a few miles north of the US-Mexico border, Ursula is the first place migrants apprehended in the region are taken by the Border Patrol. As the largest immigration processing center in the United States, Ursula is designed to hold up to 1,000 people; a CBS News crew reported 1,100 detainees being held there in June. A 2015 government contracting document includes contingency plans for up to 1,500 detainees at Ursula during “unexpected periods of high-volume apprehensions.”

Ursula became a symbol of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy last June, when it was revealed that hundreds of unaccompanied minors were being held there. Arrests along the southwest border had risen for three months in a row prior to that. Border Patrol apprehensions of families went up 38% in August, compared to July.

Michelle Brané, the director of migrant rights and justice at the Women’s Refugee Commission, has spent time at the facility and describes the conditions as jail-like. “It’s literally a giant warehouse with [people in] cages, and in the middle they have set up porta-potties and these sink contraptions,” Brané told Quartz. “The president has been talking about wanting to increase detentions. It doesn’t surprise me that they’re looking for ways to squeeze more people into the space they have.”

Rockwell American Services, the Houston-based company providing and servicing the toilets and sinks at Ursula, describes itself as “a leader in the sales/rental of products and as Logistics Managers for disaster response, bringing the company full circle in its mission to do its part in support of the best of America — the businesses that produce, the military that protects and the people who are the country’s driving force.”

Raymond Barone, Rockwell American’s director of military and government sales, did not respond to a request for comment, nor did the Border Patrol contracting officer overseeing the bids. A spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security acknowledged Quartz’s request for comment but did not respond by publication time.

So far, the US government has spent almost $6 million on the rental of shower and laundry trailers at Ursula; the 11-month contract, which ends at the same time as the toilet contract does, could potentially go as high as $16 million. Records show a $123,000 purchase in May 2018 for “emergency mylar blankets” at the facility, as well as $133,000 spent on hospital-style wristbands used to “help identify undocumented aliens.”

“The conditions were problematic to start with,” Brané says, “so we can only expect that they’ll get worse.”