When you step foot into the control room at the U.S. Border Patrol station in McAllen, Texas, the first thing that hits you is the smell.
Hovering somewhere between urine and unwashed humanity, the air is thick and hot. The sound inside the circular, glass-enclosed control room is like that of a beehive, humming with the noise of hundreds of voices mixed with buzzers and footsteps.
“This is where we do the processing,” the border patrol agent tells us.
The border patrol officer gestures to a series of white, cinderblock rooms that form a ring around the enclosed control area. Each small space is sealed by a thick gray door, which is kept locked until an officer motions for the switchboard operator to open it.
Beside each door, dozens of tanned faces press against glass windows, watching the movement on the open floor around them. Dozens more lie on the hard floor in the middle of the rooms, or on the wide benches attached to the walls.
Most of the visible faces belong to young children or teens; the adults are usually clustered in the back or tending to toddlers and infants.
The scene is devastating, and it’s only one of several windows into the illegal immigration crisis that’s sweeping across the Rio Grande Valley Sector of the U.S.-Mexico border. Since October 2013, more than 181,000 illegal immigrants have already crossed this 250-costal-mile area alone, and the McAllen, Texas station has been the hardest hit.
Border patrol officers are doing the best they can, but they simply aren’t equipped to handle the masses that have flooded their facilities.
The people – all Latinos, as far as I can tell – are divided into several groups: family units are crammed into several rooms, teens 14 and under in the next, teens 15 and older in another, and single men and women in separate holding areas on the other side of the circle.
People of all ages and genders – anywhere from young children to old men – are systematically brought out of their rooms to be “processed,” which involves taking down any identification, background, where they say they’re headed, anything they can provide. It’s usually not much.
“This is where they start,” the agent explains over the noise. “When they’re picked up at the border, they come here. Once we’ve processed them, they’re taken to the sally port.”
That’s where we head next.
The sally port is a converted bus depot attached to the border patrol station. Typically able to hold upwards of 40 buses at a time, the large, cement-floored space has been converted into a makeshift shelter to house the thousands of illegal immigrants that have been flooding the system since February.
Normally, the border patrol detains people anywhere from 12 hours to three days before turning them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or the Department of Health and Human Services, in the case of unaccompanied minors. But a backlog of people is now forcing them to house people for sometimes more than a week, agents said.
“We’ve gotten pretty good at logistics,” one agents told us. “But we’re still only working with what we’ve got.”
The McAllen station is authorized for 380 people, he explains. It’s currently housing more than 1,100.
They won’t let us in the sally port – the “folks in Washington” require a scheduled visit for that, they tell us. But they say we can stand outside the locked gates at the bus entrance and look.
I’ve been outside for all of thirty seconds, but sweat is already starting to bead on my neck by the time I approach the gate to peer inside.
If the scene inside the station’s control room is bad, the view into the sally port is appalling.
At first, there doesn’t appear to be a floor. Then I realize that’s only because I can barely see it through the mass of bodies strewn across the massive space. There are people everywhere – lying down, standing, sitting, stepping over others in a strained attempt to move around. Border patrol agents mill about with clipboards, talking to various people and administering basic medicine.
Off to one side, next to a row of blue porta potties, a group of four young girls are curled up together on the floor, resting on one another’s limbs. All four are caked in mud to the knee, most likely from their trip across the border. They remind me of a litter of kittens I once saw, scrunched together in a little ball.
There’s a simple strip of yellow crime scene tape that ropes off a small section of the space, the only barrier that separates the healthy from those who have been diagnosed with scabies.
In the “sick ward,” a mother sits with her back against the locked gate, cradling a small child in her arms. She wipes the sweat from her own forehead before placing a half a dozen wet wipes on the little boy’s face and chest, trying to cool him down. A second toddler sits beside her, sucking on a bottle filled with something that looks like orange juice.
Even standing under the force of five jumbo fans and a strong Texas breeze, the stench of unwashed bodies and well-used toilets hangs heavy, stagnating under the sweltering 100-degree heat and making it hard to breathe.
A border patrol bus pulls up to the gate. The doors open and a dozen more immigrants, mostly children, pile out, having come straight from the banks of the Rio Grande where smugglers ferried them from the Mexican bank to the United States. An agent ushers them through the door and into the processing room.
This isn’t a dream, and it sure doesn’t look like Ellis Island.
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