June 17– McALLEN, Texas –– A baby boy cried as he was carried past chain-link holding areas in the Border Patrol processing center in McAllen, Texas, Sunday morning, the largest of its kind on the border.
John Lopez, acting deputy patrol agent in charge, was touring the facility with other officials, said such crying is not unusual.
“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, the Border Patrol started charging more immigrant parents with crossing the border illegally, and separating them from their children.
The processing center in McAllen is a converted warehouse opened in 2014 in the busiest area of the border, Texas’ Rio Grande Valley.
On Sunday morning, The Los Angeles Times was allowed in the center for a briefing and tour with Rio Grande Sector Chief Manuel Padilla and other supervisors. Authorities did not allow interviews with those being processed because of privacy concerns. They also did not allow photographs or video.
Families were not being separated Sunday because federal criminal court is not in session during the weekend.
In the center, parents were lying shoulder to shoulder on green pallets with their children. The room was spare, with bare concrete floors and guard towers, but clean.
A woman breastfed her baby under a disposable metallic Mylar blanket. A toddler boy squealed as his father scooted a red toy car across his shoulder. A young girl fed a boy a carton of milk.
A few of the immigrants were Asian or black, but most were Latino.
In another room, adult men and women were held separately in cells smelling of body odor. One of the cells’ sinks had overflowed, so they were moved into another while it was fixed Sunday. Some of the women were teary.
In a hallway, a dozen agents at a bank of computers communicated with colleagues in Arizona and California via video to process the immigrants. Several women sat at two banks of computers talking to agents as their young children squirmed.
One girl in a flowered tank top cried, inconsolable. The 3-year-old had come with her mother from El Salvador, agents said. Two others 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, compared with the entire sector’s budget of $15 million. It was built to house 1,500, but has held more than 2,000 recently, Padilla said.
The 72,000-square-foot building has about 300 staff members, with a medical unit, portable bathrooms and showers. It’s separated into cells and four large holding areas, all cordoned off by cyclone fence.
Spare diapers, powdered formula and water coolers stood in the holding areas near diaper changing tables mothers were using.
On Sunday, they had 751 family members and 258 unaccompanied youths. Officials could not say how many of those unaccompanied youth had been separated from their families.
Authorities recently have separated 1,174 children and of those, 463 were reunited with parents immediately as they returned from court, Padilla said. It wasn’t clear what happened to those who were not immediately reunited.
Officials at the facility are not separating children ages 4 and under from their parents, Padilla said, due to “additional caring and logistics,” but he 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, referring to a 36 percent increase in families and unaccompanied minors crossing the border illegally this year in the Rio Grande Valley.
By law, unaccompanied youths must be turned over to Health and Human Services within 72 hours, which puts them in shelters. The average stay is 48 to 50 hours, officials said.
Migrant advocates have sued to block family separations, documenting cases where mothers were detained and separated from their children, who were sent to shelters across the country for months.
(c)2018 Los Angeles Times