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‘Grim sight’: Migrants await uncertain future at strained Border Patrol facility

McALLEN, Texas — Sitting on government-issued green mattresses and huddled under Mylar sheets, more than 1,100 migrants awaited an uncertain future at a U.S. Border Patrol facility here, where resources are strained by the Trump administration’s new “zero tolerance” policy toward people entering the U.S. illegally.

Although the facility hasn’t yet reached its capacity of 1,500, Border Patrol officials said the policy — which involves prosecuting everyone who crosses the border illegally — means the center is processing more court referrals for migrants than ever before. Some migrants’ paperwork is now being remotely processed by agents in other Texas cities.

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The family separations that stem from the Trump policy add a new burden. On top of overseeing the welfare of people housed there, staff at the McAllen facility coordinate sending children to detention centers run by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement while their parents head to court. There are only 10 permanently assigned agents at the facility, though officials would not say how many contract or other staff were on site.

“It is a challenge to balance both operations out in the front lines and the processing part of our operations,” John Lopez, the center’s acting deputy patrol agent in charge, told reporters during a rare look inside the facility.

The Border Patrol opened its doors ahead of a visit by a half-dozen Democratic lawmakers who have decried the administration’s policy, which has drawn backlash recently amid highly publicized stories of families being separated after entering the U.S. illegally.

With public outrage mounting over the nearly 2,000 children separated since the “zero tolerance” policy began, according to figures from the Department of Homeland Security, administration officials sought on Sunday to temper the politically poisonous portrayal of a heartless government tearing migrant families apart.

Lopez and other officials pointed out the more humane aspects of the migrants’ experience in processing: drinking water, hot meals, laundered mattresses. Mothers with children and unaccompanied minors have their own cells.

But inside the center, the grim reality of detained migrants’ future was palpable as they called out to reporters from inside metal pens. One mother, a 24-year-old named Dalia, said in Spanish that she and four-year-old son Cesar had left Honduras one month ago.

Another mother could only tearfully manage that she had brought one child with her, leaving the other back in Guatemala.

“It’s a pretty grim sight to see really good, young, healthy-looking kids with so much fear, so much anxiety, so much wonder of what is next,” Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) told dozens of activists who held a vigil outside the center while the Democrats went inside.

Officials said some of the impressions that have spread as the family separations have been publicized were incorrect. “There is no separation that happens out in the field,” Manuel Padilla Jr., the Border Patrol’s chief agent for the Rio Grande Valley sector, told reporters before they toured the facility. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen hammered the point further, tweeting: “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.”

At the McAllen processing center, agents would not give many details about the process, saying only that families brought in together remain together until the parents go to court.

Padilla has instituted a policy against separating migrant children age 4 or younger from their parents, according to Border Patrol agents. But other sectors along the border are not bound to that rule, officials noted, and it isn’t valid for parents who are found to have a criminal history, which can include misdemeanor border crossing violations.

After they pass through the McAllen facility, migrants must navigate a confusing web of federal agencies.

A Central American family seeking asylum is pictured. | Getty Images

A bilingual information sheet that the Border Patrol gives to parents who arrive at the facility states: “Within the next 48 hours, you will be transferred to the custody of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and will be presented before a judge for having violated” laws against illegal crossing.

“While this process is occurring, your child or children will be transferred to” a facility run by the refugee resettlement office. Parents are advised to call ORR or Immigration and Customs Enforcement to “locate my child(ren).”

Migrant children are required to be transferred to an ORR-run facility within 72 hours, but Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) told reporters after Democratic lawmakers toured the facility that he spoke to some people inside who said they had waited longer.

Lopez told reporters that he couldn’t comment on whether any parents might run the risk of getting deported without their children.

The toughest cases are the “humanitarian issues” that come up, as Lopez put it, including migrants who arrive with colostomy bags and broken legs.

The 1,129 individuals in the processing center on Sunday included 528 families and 197 unaccompanied children, officials said.

One of those unaccompanied children gave his name to reporters — Manuel — before Border Patrol agents herded the press past his cell.

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