Biden's migrant child detention center has turned a small Texas town into a surveillance state

[Photo by Robert Dean]
ByRobert Dean
Originally Published: 

CARRIZO SPRINGS, Tex.—The first thing you'll notice when you're cruising along First Street in Carrizo Springs, Texas, is that cop cars pop up everywhere. They're in the Sonic or McDonald's drive-thru, or they're weaving through the downtown. The town has always had a Border Patrol presence and police outpost, but lately, there's been an onslaught of law enforcement. It's jarring, considering Carrizo Springs could fit its entire population of 5,600 in the stands for one of Texas's famous high school football games. (Go Wildcats.)

Coming into town, the bluebonnets, Texas's state flower, are blooming right on time, all along the highway. Carrizo Springs emerges slowly; there are no gaudy signs saying "Welcome to the Friendliest Town in Texas" or whatever slogan the local rotary club deemed wholesome enough. Diesel trucks rip down First Street, while storefronts sit with "For Rent" signs in the windows. Until recently, Carrizo Springs was one of those small towns seemingly preserved in amber, like the mosquito from Jurassic Park. But that all changed in 2019, when the Trump administration worked with the Department of Health and Human Services to transform an old housing complex in Carrizo Springs once used for oilmen into a facility to process immigrants.

In the end, Donald Trump's encampment didn't last long, only a month. But when Joe Biden won the White House, immigrants from all over saw this as their chance to get into the United States, given the near-certainty that the Democrat would take a more immigrant-friendly approach to the border than Trump did. In particular, there's been an influx of migrants from Mexico and Central America.

Reopening the Carrizo Springs camp was the Biden administration's idea for how to handle the glut of unaccompanied kids arriving at the U.S.'s southern border. The result has instead been the first major crisis of Biden's young presidency, and an overwhelming law enforcement presence in Carrizo Springs.

And we're not talking garden variety cop cars, either. Think Darth Vader-looking squads, local Marshals in tricked-out SUVs, Texas state troopers in their "skunk" black and white rides, Border Patrol, and a few sports cars souped-up enough to catch the scofflaws who try to blow past a regular state-issued cruiser. In the sky, helicopters buzz past, keeping an eye on the scene, looking for anyone running through the vast acres of mesquite surrounding the tiny enclave. Carrizo Springs is not the place it was a year ago.

A sign outside of the Carrizo Springs detention center, as seen on Feb. 21, 2021. [Sergio Flores/The Washington Post via Getty Images]

Right now, there are around 15,000 migrant kids currently in U.S. custody and mainly housed in Texas. The Biden administration's goal is to get them connected with a guardian as soon as possible, but one of the biggest problems is that sometimes, those family members don't want to be found by the U.S. government. Biden thus reopened Trump's abandoned facility in Carrizo Springs as an interim space to house these young migrants until they can be linked to a sponsor. The thinking is that it can comfortably hold between 700 and 1,000 kids — but that's just a best guess. No one knows the real number of children inside, because the facility once known as "The Studios" is surrounded by high fences, with heavy security. It's in an isolated corner of Carrizo Springs, too, so that any enterprising snoop would be caught immediately.

I tried. I cruised down a dirt road just out of downtown until I came upon the telltale huge fences and glut of cop cars, marked and unmarked. An unmarked white Ford F150 followed me down the road, and it came up on me again after I made a U-turn and circled back downtown. If I'd stopped driving to snap a picture, it seemed pretty clear that I'd be made to answer some questions.

When Trump was in office, his administration did allow the media to check out whatever nefarious thing they were constructing — including the original Carrizo Springs building. Biden has instead tried to downplay the camp's existence. But after weeks of mounting attention, D.C. is making its way down south: A delegation of senior White House officials visited the area Wednesday, and House Democrats arrived for an official visit Friday. Earlier this week, Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Laredo Democrat, leaked photos from another holding facility in Donna, Texas, just east of McAllen, that showed sardine-like crowding and kids huddled underneath foil heating blankets or on mats along the floor. Texas Republican Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz led a delegation to that facility Friday too.

But lawmakers seem a lot keener to talk about Carrizo Springs than its residents are. Ask most folks around town what they know about the "kids in the cages," and they'll shrug their shoulders. Everyone I spoke with wants to help the kids and thinks that they should have a better life, but no one in town has any firsthand experience with the situation. "I don't know anyone who works there. It's like a big mystery. I don't know anything about it. We just live our lives," a clerk at the local liquor store who declined to provide her name told Mic.

Most people in town share the same sentiment: Yes, we want to help the kids. But why isn't the government helping us, the people born here? Carrizo Springs's downtown is desolate. Only a few places were open and operating, even at 10 a.m. on a Monday. No one was walking around. Only a few trucks cruised past, though of course, I saw cop cars.

"It's like this: You leave; you find one of the few jobs that don't pay nothing; you get into human trafficking, selling dope; or you die."

Sitting in Mimi's Mexican Restaurant, I ordered chorizo, egg, and cheese breakfast tacos after reading about them on the vinyl sign screwed into the wall. As I was pouring on the salsa and talking to the waitstaff, the topic shifted immediately. "Carrizo is hard, man. There's nothing here," one waitress said. "We've got all of these new cops, worried about the detention center, but where were they when my friend was killed?"

Just days before, a woman had been stabbed over 20 times, something every single person I met in Carrizo Springs mentioned. All of them knew her and the guy who did it, and all mentioned her kids — what about their future? You can't help but see the complex parallels between those kids and the ones being held at The Studios.

Like the liquor store clerk, no one in Mimi's wanted their name in print, but the script didn't change. "With all of these cops, it makes life harder than easier, almost," the same waitress said. "There are no opportunities. There are bored kids, but also kids doing stuff because they see there's no way to survive. It's like this: You leave; you find one of the few jobs that don't pay nothing; you get into human trafficking, selling dope; or you die." Her co-workers agreed.

Right now, the U.S. government is spending around $60 billion on immigration annually. Rehabbing these sites for kids who need a safe place to stay after crossing the border costs about $775 per child, per day. Most of the kids are teenagers coming from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico, looking to escape violence and poverty. A change in immigration policy allows unaccompanied children to stay in the U.S. even if they cross the border illegally, while single adults and families crossing together are kicked out, with a few exceptions.

A sign welcoming children into a classroom at the Carrizo Springs migrant detention center, as seen on Feb. 21, 2021. [Sergio Flores/The Washington Post via Getty Images]

The vast majority of South Texas is of Mexican descent — almost 70% of the area can trace their lineage across the Rio Grande. Anytime you visit down here, there's an identity crisis: The heritage is Mexican, the country is the United States, but the state is Texas and Texas pride is real, no matter what part of the state you're from. Spanglish is a thing, but so is wearing Cowboys gear (Dallas is six hours north); George Strait blares over the speakers from the local taqueria. But for the folks in these areas, the money isn't there. They're not afforded the same opportunities as people in a big city like Houston, or in a small town central to the state that's full of white folks. This is the poorest area of Texas, and a plight like that further complicates identity issues: When these kids are coming over, locals understand why, but they also worry about their own futures.

It's easy to see how people in Carrizo Springs feel hopeless. The streets are littered with potholes. The nicest buildings in town are the new HEB, a grocery store, and a new courthouse. Everything else could use a lifetime amount of TLC. The average home in Carrizo Springs goes for less than $60,000; getting the minimum wage kicked up to $15 an hour would change these workers' lives.

Seeing out-of-town folks making a good wage by staffing up the government's shiny new immigrant detention center feels like a kick upward for Carrizo Springs lifers when most of them are already down. It's not like anyone was vocally morbid. No one was mean. They were open and warm. But they repeatedly wished that if the government was going to come into their town, it would at least help them, too.

Of course, whether the Biden administration is "helping" the migrant children certainly depends on perspective. Some more progressive Democrats, like New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, immediately condemned the Biden administration for detaining unaccompanied children at all. Republicans have laid the blame on the new White House's less "law enforcement-focused" approach to immigration. Cruz didn't spare his political jabs for Biden, saying this "is a crisis that was created by the Biden administration" and noting all the ways Biden broke with Trump's policies: "He halted construction on the wall, reinstituted ‘catch and release,' and ended the Remain in Mexico policy. This crisis is getting worse and worse by the day."

Ms. Jackson standing in her store, Granny's Attic. [Photo by Robert Dean]

Before I left Carrizo Springs, I stopped in Granny's Attic, a wonderful catch-all store selling everything from cowboy boots, pearl snap shirts, and workwear. A whole other side of the store acts as a de facto thrift store with a little bit of everything. Ms. Jackson, a retired schoolteacher, has run the shop for the last 34 years and has been in town even longer. (When I asked for her name, she quipped, "Everyone in this town knows Ms. Jackson." And she was right: My lunch waitress mentioned her by name, clearly warmly, when I said I'd stopped by the store.)

"I've taught most of the kids in this town. I've taught their grandparents. I know every trooper who grew up here," Jackson told me. "I've never seen all of these new cop cars, and vans, and buses. There's been a lot of high-speed chases, the murder of that poor girl, and a lot more people getting busted for drugs. My family keeps telling me to come home to Oklahoma, but this is my home. This is where I belong."

Standing in Ms. Jackson's shop, among the rows of bric-a-brac and cowboy hats, you feel the smallness of Carrizo Springs. The town wasn't what I expected. I went with the intent of seeing the machinations of the government in action. What I got instead was a small town wondering when someone would come and explore what makes them worth investing in, rather than another piece of tragedy porn. It's obvious everyone wants Carrizo Springs to get better, to be a nice place to live, to not be a remote town where kids get busted for hauling drugs around to other cities or helping move bodies who just crossed the border in trunks of cars. They don't like the fact that the Biden administration is keeping unaccompanied children in a warehouse down off in a distant corner of town, but they also can't help but notice those kids are the only reason the government is here at all.