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.