Inside a converted warehouse here, one of the largest migrant processing facilities in the country, rows of undocumented migrants filled chain-link cells when CNN visited last week.
The facility, designed to hold 1,500, was crammed with 2,200 migrants detained at the border. That’s nearly double the number who were there last summer.
The region’s central processing facility, which was built in the wake of the unaccompanied crisis five years ago, is better equipped to care for families and children than most Border Patrol stations, but its limits are being tested.
Despite the near-constant attention President Donald Trump and his administration have placed on the border, illegal immigration is on the rise, leading to serious overcrowding in detention facilities like this one.
“We are way over capacity,” said a Border Patrol official while touring the facility in McAllen with CBP Deputy Commissioner Robert Perez.
Customs and Border Protection facilities in the area are overflowing with migrants who can’t be processed and transferred fast enough to make room for all the new people arrested for crossing the border illegally or seeking asylum at the ports.
This backlog has led CBP to begin releasing some migrants with notices to appear in court. According to a CBP official, 50 people were released on March 19, with another 200 expected to be released on March 20. The releases are a “temporary measure” being implemented “to mitigate risks to both officer safety and vulnerable populations,” said the official.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement has also released families along the southern border due to capacity issues and the inability to hold families longer than 20 days.
Both the ICE and new CBP policies are, in effect, “catch and release” policies that the Trump administration has criticized.
Separately, DHS has begun returning some asylum seekers who arrive in California to Mexico for the duration of their immigration proceedings and has indicated it plans to expand the practice across the southern border. This policy is being challenged in court.
A system overwhelmed again
While illegal border crossings are on the rise, they have not reached the record highs from the early to mid-2000s, when apprehensions often hit more than 100,000 a month along the southern border.
In February, the most recent month available, 66,450 people were apprehended on the southern border.
But it’s the changing demographics that US officials and agencies are struggling with. Fifteen years ago, the typical migrant apprehended at the southern border was a single male from Mexico who was then quickly returned to Mexico. Today, families and children make up the majority of apprehensions. They are predominantly from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Today’s situation is reminiscent of the wave of unaccompanied minors apprehended at the border in the summer of 2014. Back then, Border Patrol apprehended 10,620 unaccompanied minors in one month. This February, 6,825 unaccompanied children were apprehended, along with a record 36,174 family members.
In the first five months of this fiscal year, there were 163,087 apprehensions of unaccompanied minors and families – already more than in all of 2018, which was 157,248 for the entire year.
“It overwhelms the resources that I have,” said Rio Grande Valley Chief Patrol Agent Rodolfo Karisch about the increase in families and children. “Out of every shift, I’m having to take 20% of my workforce and dedicate them to processing, dedicate them to hospital watch and transportation, so it is very taxing on our resources.”
Karisch said that as the summer months approach and temperatures rise, “rescue season” begins.
“I don’t get extra personnel, given to me for the humanitarian mission, nor do I get extra personnel for the actual rescue operations, so all of those things are very taxing,” said Karisch.
The problem is particularly acute in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, already the busiest region for illegal border crossings in the country. Thirty-eight percent of all border apprehensions and 52% of marijuana seizures occur in this part of southern Texas, according to Karisch.
The converted warehouse
The building in McAllen, a nondescript, beige facade, opens into warehouse space with large fenced-in cells used to divide migrants into different demographic groups- single adults, families, and unaccompanied children.
Inside them, people lay next to each other under crinkling mylar blankets, others stand along the wire fence. The cement floor is lined with green gym mats. Two children pushed empty trash cans around, seemingly with nothing else to play with.
One area held what appeared to be hundreds of children and parents, eating apples, potato chips and other snacks, and drinking from bottles of water and milk cartons.
What to call these holding pens has become a contentious point of debate. While the CBP and Department of Homeland Security officials refer to them as “pods,” Democratic lawmakers who criticize the Trump administration’s have described them as cages. In a recent testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said her department does not use cages to house migrant children when questioned by House Homeland Security Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Mississippi.
CBP Deputy Commissioner Robert Perez says that calling them cages is a “mischaracterization of what the processing center actually is. It is a center that is there and meant for and indented to, in the most safest means possible, to take these most vulnerable populations and afford us as the front line law enforcement agency the best ability to deliver the care and processing that we are responsible to do for those very vulnerable populations.”
“That really struck me, the care with which our agents are taking care of this population,” said Perez. “The other thing that struck me was, how saturated we are. A facility, very well-equipped, very well-resourced, nevertheless overwhelmed by the virtue of just the sheer numbers of people that we are seeing.”
The group, including CBP officials and two CNN journalists, entered one of the cells, labeled “red pod C.” There, an agent stood guard on top of a painted red structure, reminiscent of a lifeguard tower, and stood above to watch what was happening inside.
“We do have fights from time to time, which is why we have to have an open facility,” said another Border Patrol official as we walked through the center.
There are also laundry facilities and showers in the building – not available at all of the stations in the region or across the border. CBP also purchases new clothing, which are given to migrants while their personal garments are being washed.
A group of border agents assigned to handle unaccompanied minor cases worked feverishly at a long row of desks. Another row of desks, although empty when CNN was there, are meant for consular officers that can help US officials determine if the documents brought by migrants, primarily from Central American countries, are legitimate.
“This needs to be a whole of government, regional problem, not just CBP and DHS,” said one of the officials on the tour.
Length of stay
The goal is to move people out of the processing center and other Border Patrol facilities within 72 hours, but that doesn’t always happen.
“Some of these folks have been sitting here for days, not hours,” said a senior Border Patrol official on the walkthrough.
The average length of stay in the facility is currently 60 hours, but that drops to 32 hours for families, according to the official.
The McAllen center was designed to temporarily house migrants so they can be processed and transferred to other agencies. Families and adults are generally released to Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody, while unaccompanied children are transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Although agents want to move people out the center as quickly as possible, the short turnaround presents another problem – how to verify familial relationships.
For example, even if a document is determined to be legitimate, agents have to determine whether it’s fraudulent. Additionally, only children older than 14 are fingerprinted, leaving a gap in the biometric data that can be gathered.
After a couple hours touring the facility and border in McAllen, Perez noted that it’s not just the Border Patrol facilities, but the entire US immigration system that is backlogged. “The system is overwhelmed,” he said.
The border and the ports
Later that day, about 10 miles away from the McAllen processing center, agents lined up a group of about a dozen migrants just apprehended near the Anzalduas International Bridge along the border with Mexico. Agents asked all the migrants for their information and documents. Among those apprehended were Xiomara and her adolescent son. She said they fled extortion and death threats in her home country of Guatemala.
“They give you days to give them the money, and if not, they’ll kill you,” she said in Spanish.
At the time Xiomara and her son were encountered, Border Patrol had apprehended 600 people for the day. By the end of the day, 1,420 people had been taken into custody – making it the second-busiest day in the sector since 2014.
Several miles to the east, the Hidalgo Port of Entry was also overwhelmed with asylum-seekers. On Friday, there were 77 migrants in the 35-person capacity facility.
“How do we handle this many people?” asked the CBP official giving a tour of the port.
The port has converted its offices into holding facilities for families and uses its original holding cells for bathrooms. Inside the port, there was a closet filled with Pedialyte, Nestle formula, children’s clothing and other goods.
At night, officers put down mats and provide blankets so migrants have somewhere to sleep.
Migrants are sent to various processing facilities in the area depending on which facility has availability. However, agents aim to send all unaccompanied minors to the central processing center in McAllen.
“Especially right now” the region’s facilities are overcapacity, said Chief Karisch, adding the Border Patrol stations and the processing center in McAllen are “exactly what they are –processing, short-term holding facilities,” he said.
CNN’s Raphy Rodriguez, Priscilla Alvarez, Catherine Shoichet and Susannah Cullinane contributed to this report.