(Los Fresnos) Waiting weeks, even months, to obtain asylum or be deported: this is the fate of migrants detained at the Port Isabel detention center, Texas, in the southern United States.  

A fate to which the temporary closure of the border between the United States and Mexico, established by President Joe Biden since Wednesday, does not change anything.

Surrounded by huge metal fences and barbed wire, this former naval base in the town of Los Fresnos, a few kilometres from the border, is almost full: 1,006 migrants, all men, are currently being held there for a maximum of 1,175 places.

The authorities organised a visit for the media, without allowing them to speak with the detainees.

“Each case is judged on its own merits and as long as the United States has valid reasons not to deport a person to their country of origin, we have the legal authority to detain them.” explains Miguel Vergara, a local immigration police official.

Only the most isolated migrants end up behind the thick walls of this detention center. Families who enter the United States and surrender to border guards are generally quickly released, awaiting a later appearance before a judge.

Joe Biden’s turn of the screw is supposed to reduce pressure at the Mexican border, where a record number of people from Latin America, Africa and Asia are flocking.  

The president’s executive order prevents migrants who entered the United States illegally from receiving asylum when their number exceeds 2,500 per day for a week, which is currently the case.

The text also facilitates expulsions to Mexico, with a few rare exceptions.

A few months before a presidential election facing a Donald Trump with violent rhetoric against migrants, Joe Biden’s toughening should not reduce the population of the center, according to Miguel Vergara.

“If there is a drop, it is temporary,” believes the manager. Border crossings are increasingly taking place on the western part of the border, rather than in Texas, he recalls.  

Upon arrival, migrants are sent to collective cells with thick metal doors.  

They stay there for a maximum of 12 hours before being classified by color: blue uniform for men with no history, orange for those with a criminal record, red for those considered dangerous.

“We have detainees who represent a risk to national security and public safety, who are trying to evade border controls or who have crossed the border illegally,” explains Miguel Vergara.

After a medical examination, they are divided into sectors according to the color of their uniform. Surveillance cameras cover almost every corner of the center.

By the authorities’ own admission, confinement can be alienating and measures are being taken to mitigate its effects.

Migrants can learn English and take part in singing or guitar workshops.

Some take it upon themselves to cut their peers’ hair or organize movie nights. A film in Chinese was even broadcast when the center received a large number of migrants from China.

Others kill time by devoting themselves to creating murals.

Everyone has access to a private booth, where they can call an immigration official to present their asylum request.

The response is given in writing. In the event of refusal, it is possible to appeal: a court operates within the center. The case can sometimes go all the way to the Supreme Court.

Those who cannot stand the wait can ask to be sent back to their country, putting an end to the procedure.

A definitive refusal is synonymous with expulsion. If asylum is granted, the detainee will ultimately be released within 48 hours.