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Dirty, hungry, scared, and sick: Inside Clint’s razor wire

Demonstrators outside the Border Patrol station that has become the public face of the chaos on America’s southern border, in Clint, Texas, on Thursday.
Demonstrators outside the Border Patrol station that has become the public face of the chaos on America’s southern border, in Clint, Texas, on Thursday.(Ilana Panich-Linsman/New York Times)

CLINT, Texas — Since the Border Patrol opened its station in Clint, Texas, 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.

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, 4 miles south. But inside the secretive site that is suddenly on the front lines of the southwest border crisis, the men and women who work there were grappling with the stuff of nightmares.

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Outbreaks of scabies, shingles, and chickenpox were spreading among the hundreds of children who were being held in cramped cells, agents said. The stench was so strong it spread to the agents’ clothing. 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 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 disputed descriptions of degrading conditions inside Clint and other migrant detention sites around El Paso, claiming that their facilities were rigorously and humanely managed.

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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.

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 Border Patrol agents told her they had repeatedly warned their superiors about the overcrowded facility, but 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,” González said. “I genuinely believe that the higher-ups made the Clint situation happen.”

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Architects designed the Clint station as a type of forward base from which agents could go on forays along the border.

The station was never intended to hold more than about a hundred adult men, and it was designed with the idea that migrants would be detained for only a few hours of processing before being transferred to other locations.

Officials have allowed reporters and members of Congress on controlled tours of Clint, but prohibited them from bringing phones or cameras inside, and from entering certain areas. But The New York Times was able to model the main areas where children were held: the station’s central processing area, with its cinder-block cells; a converted loading area and yard; and a warehouse on the property.

A detachment of Coast Guard personnel, sent to assist overworked agents, stock an ad hoc pantry with items like oatmeal and instant noodles. Monitors in blue shirts roam the station, hired through an outside contractor to supervise the detained children. Beyond the pantry, a door leads to the site’s processing center, equipped with about 10 cells.

One day this month, about 20 girls were crowded into one cell, so packed that some were sprawled on the floor. Toddlers could be seen in some cells, cared for by older children. One of the cells functioned as a quarantine unit or “flu cell” for children with contagious diseases.

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Clint is known for holding what agents call UACs, or unaccompanied alien children — children who cross the border alone or with relatives who are not their parents.

Three agents who work at Clint said they had seen unaccompanied children as young as 3 enter the facility, and lawyers who recently inspected the site as part of a lawsuit on migrant children’s rights said they saw children as young as 5 months old. An agent who has worked for Border Patrol for 13 years confirmed reports by immigration lawyers that agents have asked migrants who are teenagers to help care for the younger children.

“We have nine agents processing, two agents in charge of UAC care, and we have little ones that need their diapers changed, and we can’t do that,” the agent said. “We do ask the older juveniles, the 16-year-olds or 17-year-olds, to help us out with that.”

The number of children in the site is thought to have peaked at more than 700 around April and May, and stood at nearly 250 two weeks ago. In an attempt to relieve overcrowding, agents took all the children out of Clint but then moved more than 100 back into the station just days later.

One day in April, a man from Washington arrived unannounced around midday at the Clint station. He introduced himself as Henry Moak, and told the agents inside that he was there to inspect the site in his role as Customs and Border Protection’s chief accountability officer.

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The Clint station was far over capacity on the day of Moak’s visit, bulging with 291 children. Moak found evidence of a lice infestation; children also told him about going hungry and being forced to sleep on the floors.

Moak in the end stated that Clint was in compliance with standards.

One of a team of lawyers who inspected the station in June, Warren Binford, said that in all her years of visiting detention and shelter facilities, she had never encountered conditions so bad — 351 children crammed into what she described as a prisonlike environment.

She looked at the roster, and was shocked to see more than 100 very young children listed. “My God, these are babies, I realized. They are keeping babies here,” she recalled.

One teenage mother from El Salvador said Border Patrol agents at the border had taken her medicine for her infant son, who had a fever.

“Who told you to come to America with your baby, anyway?” one of the agents told her, according to the young woman’s account to Binford.

Much of the overcrowding appears to have been relieved at Clint, and overall arrivals at the border are slowing.

A Border Patrol agent who has long worked in the El Paso area said agents had tried to make things as easy as possible for the children.

But the Border Patrol long “took great pride” in quickly processing migrant families, and making sure children did not remain in their rudimentary stations for longer than 72 hours, the agent said. Clint, he said, “is not a place for kids.”