McAllen, Texas

The dog kennel: That’s how the Border Patrol processing facility in McAllen is known, because of the chain-link fencing penning more than a thousand migrants inside. The 77,000-square-foot facility—often called “Ursula,” because of the street it’s on—lies just a few miles north of the US-Mexico border in the Rio Grande Valley, the busiest corridor for unauthorized migrants. Ursula is one of the first places immigrants are taken to after being apprehended by Border Patrol—and now, the facility is the epicenter for the family separations that are occurring because of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy towards border crossers.

A large cage inside held dozens of young boys and teenagers without their families, some of whom looked as young as 5. A few slept on green mats with silver Mylar blankets pulled tightly around them. A few water bottles and bags of chips lay strewn around. Otherwise, the cages were bare, without toys or books. Separate areas held groups of girls; men and women alone; and mothers and fathers with their children. The overhead lights never go off. In one pen, a woman named Valesca sat on the ground, holding her 1-year-old son. She cried as she recounted leaving another child behind in Guatemala. She’d been inside the processing center for four days.

Under normal circumstances, adults confined in the facility are supposed to stay only 12 hours before being sent to court hearings or other detention centers. But across the border region, detention facilities, children’s shelters, and the legal system are overwhelmed. In May, the Trump administration issued a directive to prosecute all unauthorized border crossers in federal court, rather than to process them through immigration courts. The criminal charges mean extra paperwork, and a flood of cases into the legal system. The Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley office is now charging more than a 1,000 adults each week with illegal entry, a misdemeanor.

In one area of the Ursula facility, computers have been set up for “virtual processing,” so that Border Patrol agents in other cities can process the paperwork of detainees being held here. Ursula has only 10 agents permanently stationed there, plus hundreds of temporarily assigned agents, and they can’t handle the volume on their own. Detainees are brought in and out of the facility 24 hours a day. As of noon on Sunday, Ursula held 1,129 people, including 528 families and nearly 200 children who’d crossed the border without their parents. The facility has only four social workers onsite.

The shift to criminal prosecutions is also causing the systematic separation of parents and children. According to Border Patrol officials who gave reporters a brief tour of the Ursula facility on Sunday, children are automatically taken away from anyone being criminally prosecuted. The Rio Grande Valley sector does not separate parents from children younger than 4—though that policy doesn’t apply to anyone with a prior criminal conviction, including misdemeanor offenses, according to Border Patrol agent Carmen Qualia. More than 1,100 children in the Rio Grande Valley sector alone have been taken from their parents in the last six weeks, according to Border Patrol sector chief Manuel Padilla, and more than 2,000 nationwide since early April—an average of 45 children a day.

Parents and children are then cast into separate channels of the federal bureaucracy. Parents are sent into ICE custody and to federal court, where many are sentenced to “time served,” and put into deportation proceedings. Children go into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Service’s Office of Refugee Resettlement. That transfer is supposed to take place within 72 hours. According to John Lopez, the acting deputy Border Patrol agent at Ursula, it’s possible that a parent could go to court and come back to Ursula the same day, only to find that their child has already been moved to another facility.

It’s not clear what the government’s process is for reunifying these families. Officials at the Ursula processing center showed a handout that they are giving to parents that instructs them to call an ICE or ORR hotline. “We are told inside here, ‘Oh, it’s just a very short period—they go to a judge and then they’re reunified.’ That’s not what we’re hearing,” said Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, who toured the Ursula facility and others in the Rio Grande Valley region on Sunday with other Democratic members of Congress. Some parents have been deported while their children remain in US custody. “The reality is it’s very hard for the parents to know where there kids are and be able to connect with them,” Merkley said.

For the group of lawmakers, the most distressing visit occurred at the end of day, at the Port Isabel Detention Center, a remote facility surrounded by a swampland near the Gulf of Mexico. There, Merkley and several others met with 10 women, most from Honduras, who’d been separated from their children, one as young as 3. Only some of them know where their children were taken: to shelters elsewhere in Texas, but also as far as Miami and New York. One woman worried about her child’s health, because no one collected information about her child’s medical condition when they were separated. Another had been told that her child would be put up for adoption. “It was the most disturbing thing I heard all day,” said Rhode Island Representative David Cicilline. “They were sobbing, sobbing uncontrollably.” None of the women has been able to talk to a lawyer.

The legislators said they are particularly concerned about the treatment of asylum seekers. One woman at Port Isabel said she’d turned herself in at a legal port of entry, only to be criminally prosecuted for illegal entry. “It’s perfectly legal to, at a checkpoint, ask for asylum,” Merkley said. Earlier in the day, his group visited the border crossing in Hidalgo, where there have been reports of Border Patrol officers turning away people before they can get into the United States to ask for asylum. “What they’re doing is making it very difficult for those seeking asylum to cross at the legal border points,” Merkley said. “It’s part of a coordinated strategy to stop asylum seekers from ever being able to make their case.” Two weeks ago, he said, he saw dozens of families camped out on the bridge, waiting for a chance to ask for asylum.

In Brownsville, the congressional group toured a former Walmart that has been converted into a shelter, called Casa Padre, for teenage boys who crossed the border alone or who have been separated from their parents. Southwest Key, the company that runs Casa Padre and many other shelters for migrant children, has hired more than 800 workers just in the past week in order to keep up with rising numbers of kids being sent to shelters because of the “zero-tolerance” policy. The organization is still trying to hire 90 more mental-health-care providers for Casa Padre alone. The legislators asked for, but were not given, the locations of other Southwest Key shelters where younger children and girls are being held. “They are in some of these facilities, but they won’t tell us where they are,” said Wisconsin Representative Mark Pocan.

Border Patrol agents at the Ursula facility emphasized that detainees had access to showers, clean clothes, and three hot meals a day, as well as snacks, water, and bathroom access whenever they requested it. At Casa Padre, lawmakers acknowledged that staff were doing their best to care for the children. But no matter how nice the facilities are, parental separation may be doing irreparable harm, particularly to younger children, pediatricians have warned. “Those kids inside who have been separated from their parents are already being traumatized,” said Merkley. “It doesn’t matter whether the floor is swept, and the bedsheets tucked in tight.”

The impression left by the various site visits was of agencies scrambling to catch up with a policy decision made far away from the realities of the border. “They don’t quite know how to deal with this policy because it’s so new. You’ve got these big numbers of people coming in…. it’s just a real mess,” said Representative Pocan. Border Patrol agents at the McAllen facility sometimes gave conflicting answers to reporters about policy, such as when children under 4 could or couldn’t be separated from their parents. At one point in McAllen, a Border Patrol agent moved to block the window of an individual cell, after realizing that it contained a woman who stood with her back against the wall, an arm covering her face. “Do not use cell 18,” read a sign taped above the door.

Meanwhile, further west in Tornillo, Texas, government contractors are hastily building a tent encampment to house 4,000 teen boys, including some who were removed from their parents after crossing the border. The Border Patrol is trying to escalate separations: In the Rio Grande region, only about 40 percent of those eligible are currently being criminally charged; the goal is 100 percent. President Trump has said he will not change the policy unless Democrats capitulate to various demands to tighten immigration enforcement, including funding a border wall. “The president of the United States is literally holding these kids separated from their parents as hostages to try to pass his version of some kind of immigration legislation that’s not related to the need to separate parents from their families,” said Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen, outside the Casa Padre shelter in Brownsville. “It is a cynical, evil policy.”