A baby boy cried as a staffer carried him past chain-link fenced holding areas in the Border Patrol processing center in McAllen, Texas, on Sunday morning, a sprawling former warehouse, the largest of its kind on the border.
Such crying is not unusual, said John Lopez, acting deputy patrol agent in charge.
“Our agents will hear that, try to find out what’s going on and go care for them if they’re unaccompanied,” he said. “If there’s a parent, they will reunite them for a bit.”
Last month, Border Patrol started charging more immigrant parents with crossing the border illegally in federal criminal court and separating them from their children, sometimes only for a few hours, officials said. Officials defend the policy as a necessary deterrent.
Congressional lawmakers and immigrant advocates protesting outside the center Sunday called family separation abusive, and insisted it needs to stop. Migrant advocates have sued to block family separations, documenting cases in which mothers were detained and separated from children sent to shelters across the country for months.
The processing center is a converted warehouse that opened in 2014 in the busiest area of the border, Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. So far this year, 108,000 immigrants have been caught crossing illegally here, 36% of them families. The Times was allowed to tour the center with Rio Grande Sector Chief Manuel Padilla. Authorities did not allow immigrant interviews or photographs beyond what they later released, due to privacy concerns.
In the morning, 751 family members and 258 unaccompanied youth were being processed. About 15 to 20 of the 130 unaccompanied children seen daily have been separated from their parents, said Monique Grame, a Border Patrol executive officer.
Families were not separated because the federal criminal court was closed during the weekend, Padilla said. Instead, parents were lying shoulder to shoulder on green pallets, some with their children, some separate.
The 72,000-square-foot facility was clean and spare, with bare concrete floors. Uniformed agents, some wearing masks, observed from guard towers and escorted migrants down corridors. Lopez noted with pride that the 42 portable toilets did not smell, although they were open at the top, due to security concerns.
The center’s two massive rooms were separated into 22 chain link-fenced spaces, many labeled “cells” with netting on top to prevent escapes. They’re cleaned three times a day. Lopez said they used fencing because it was cheap and see-through.
Behind the fence in one of four large holding areas, a woman breastfed her baby under a disposable metallic Mylar blanket. A toddler squealed as his father scooted a red toy car across his shoulder. Another lay with his head in his father’s lap, chattering away. A young girl fed a carton of milk to a barefoot boy (they get three meals a day, plus snacks). Another girl twisted her fingers through the fence. Some children watched a television suspended above.
Beside them, spare diapers, powdered formula and water coolers had been set near diaper-changing tables mothers were using. A few of the immigrants were Asian or black, but the majority were Latino.
In the center’s processing area, which smelled of body odor, men and women were held separately. One of the cells’ sinks had overflowed, so the immigrants were moved into another while it was fixed. Some of the women were teary-eyed. In the segregation cell, which had a metal door with a window, a woman huddled in a corner, head down.
Nearby, a dozen agents at a bank of computers communicated with colleagues elsewhere in Texas, Arizona and California, via video to process the immigrants. Several women sat at two banks of computers, talking to agents in Spanish as their young children squirmed. A 3-year-old girl in a flowered tank top cried, inconsolable after arriving with her mother from El Salvador. Two other women came from Guatemala with 3-year-old children, one girl nearly hairless and still in diapers.
The center costs about $12.1 million to operate annually, compared with the entire sector’s budget of $15 million. Built for 1,500 people, it has held more than 2,000 recently. It has a staff of 10 but due to the influx, Padilla added 300 more, about 10% of his workforce. There’s a medical unit with three paramedics, two medical staffers and space to quarantine those who have contracted chicken pox, scabies and other communicable diseases. There is no mental health staff, and agents have not received mental health training since the Trump administration “zero tolerance” policy was implemented May 6.
Rio Grande Valley border agents have prosecuted 568 adults and separated 1,174 children since zero tolerance began, Padilla said. Of those, 463 were reunited with parents “in a matter of hours” after they returned from court. It wasn’t clear how long the rest were separated.
Officials try to keep siblings together and are not separating children ages 4 and younger from their parents, Padilla said, due to “additional caring and logistics,” but said that could change.
“When we exempt people from the law that creates a trend, and that is what we are seeing here,” Padilla said, noting an 18% increase this month in non-Mexican families and unaccompanied minors crossing the border illegally compared with last month and a 36% increase compared with last June.
He said zero tolerance was “designed to deter people from violating the law.”
“Without these prosecutions, we will not reverse this trend,” he said.
By law, unaccompanied youth must be turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours, which places them in shelters. Officials try to move people within 12 hours to free space, but the average stay is about 50 hours, during which time they’re not allowed outside.
By afternoon Sunday, there were 1,129 immigrants at the center. The number of families had dropped to 528, unaccompanied minors to 197, as they were either released (with ankle monitors) or transferred to HHS.
Merida Valesca, 24, was in one of the fenced holding areas with her 1-year-old daughter, crying. She said she knew about family separations before she left Guatemala, crossed the river with a group but lost them. Before she could say more, agents took the tour group away.
More people shared bits of information as the tour passed: Dalia Cepeda said she came with her child a month ago; a father said he brought his 3-year-old son from El Salvador; a Guatemalan youth said he crossed the border alone three days ago.
About a hundred protesters had assembled outside. They raised signs saying, “End Family Separations,” “Mothers and Fathers should not be held in jail” and “On Father’s Day, all families belong together.” They chanted, “You are not alone,” in English and Spanish through bullhorns to the children inside. Some yelled at Border Patrol agents emerging from the center, urging them to quit.
“The militarization of the border, the wall, the separations — it’s all of a piece,” said Scott Nicol, who has fought the border wall as co-chair of the Sierra Club’s borderlands team. He brought his 11-year-old daughter Zay, who held a sign in the parking lot that said, “Children need their parents.”
Jose Torres, 65, lives nearby and came to protest with his wife because he worries about families inside the processing center.
“They’re being treated like animals,” said Torres, who assists local farm workers. “That’s not being humane, that’s not showing friendship to people looking for a better life.”
Dr. Marsha Griffin also joined the protest, having toured the processing center three times and reported allegations of child abuse to Texas authorities.
“They were in cages, 10-year-old boys were screaming and sobbing and trying to control themselves as they could see their mothers in other cages,” she said.
Several members of Congress toured the center Sunday before holding a briefing outside. The group included U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who drew national attention to family separation during his last border visit two weeks ago when he was turned away from a federally contracted shelter for migrant youth.
Merkley said he later spoke with Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions about the issue.
“Hopefully we can get the president to talk to us,” Merkley said. “This is a complete strategy of injuring families to send a message to those overseas.”
Compared to his last visit, Merkley said the processing center appeared “emptied out” and cleaned up.” He met with fathers who had trouble locating their children and a mother who had not heard from her 13-year-old daughter for two days.
The lawmakers later visited the bridge to Reynosa, Mexico, where asylum-seeking families have been forced to wait recently, some for weeks. They arrived with armed Border Patrol guards. Reynosa is among the most dangerous cities surrounding Tamaulipas state, which according to the U.S. State Department is essentially a war zone due to cartel violence.
Most of the families had vanished. Merkley said he spoke with a Honduran woman who crossed Sunday with her 3-month-old daughter by skirting authorities, pretending to clean windshields then following cars across.
“They’re forcing people to cross illegally by blocking the border points and not allowing people to claim asylum,” he said, a charge U.S. officials have denied.
Mexican officials at the crossing said they started requiring those entering the bridge to show they had transit visas allowing them to cross.
“People are terrified now to come to the bridges,” said Jennifer Harbury, a lawyer based in the Rio Grande Valley who works with migrant families and accompanied lawmakers to the bridge. “People are going to go through the river with their kids and drown.”