Sunday morning, I flew to McAllen, Texas to find out what's really happening to immigrant families ripped apart by the Trump administration.
There's one thing that's very clear: The crisis at our border isn't over.
I went straight from the airport to the McAllen Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center that is the epicenter of Donald Trump's so-called "zero-tolerance" policy. This is where border patrol brings undocumented migrants for intake before they are either released, deported, turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), or, in the case of unaccompanied or separated children, placed in the custody of Health and Human Services.
From the outside, the CBP processing center looks like any other warehouse on a commercial street lined with warehouses. There's no clue about the horrors inside.
Before we could get in, CBP insisted we had to watch a government propaganda video. There's no other way to describe it -- it's like a movie trailer. It was full of dramatic narration about the "illegals" crossing our border, complete with gory pictures about the threats that these immigrants bring to the United States, from gangs to skin rashes. The star of the show is CBP, which, according to the video, has done a great job driving down the numbers.
The warehouse is enormous, with a solid concrete floor and a high roof. It is filled with cages. Cages for men. Cages for women. Cages for mamas with babies. Cages for girls. Cages for boys.
The stench -- body odor and fear -- hits the second the door is opened. The first cages are full of men. The chain link is about 12-15 feet high, and the men are tightly packed. I don't think they could all lie down at the same time. There's a toilet at the back of the cage behind a half-wall, but no place to shower or wash up. One man kept shouting, "A shower, please. Just a shower."
Then I asked them how long they had been there -- and the answers were all over the map, from a few days to nearly two weeks (72 hours max?). The CBP agents rushed to correct the detained men, claiming that their answers couldn't be right. My immigration specialist on the trip who speaks fluent Spanish made sure the men understood that the question was, "How long have you been in the building?" Their answers didn't change.
Cage after cage. Same questions, same answers.
Next we came into the area where the children were held. These cages were bigger with far more people. In the center of the cage, there's a freestanding guard tower probably a story or story-and-a-half taller to look down over the children. The girls are held separately in their own large cage. The children told us that they had come to the United States with family and didn't know where they had been taken. Eleven years old. Twelve. Locked in a cage with strangers. Many hadn't talked to their mothers or fathers. They didn't know where they were or what would happen to them next.
The children were quiet. Early afternoon, and they just sat. Some were on thin mats with foil blankets pulled over their heads. They had nothing -- no books, no toys, no games. They looked shell shocked.
And then there were the large cages with women and small children. Women breast-feeding their young children.
When we went over to the mamas with babies, I asked them about why they had left their home countries. One young mother had a 4-year-old child. She said she had been threatened by the gangs in El Salvador. She had given a drink of water to a police officer, and the gang decided she must be in with the police. The longer she spoke, the more agitated she got -- that she would never do that, that she understood the risk with the gangs, but that the gangs believed she did it. She sold everything she had and fled with her son to the United States.
One thing you won't see much of in the CBP processing center? Fathers caged with their children. After pressing the CBP agents, they explained that men traveling with children are automatically released from the facility. They just don't have the cages there to hold them. Women with small children, on the other hand, could be detained indefinitely. I pressed them on this again and again. The only answer: they claimed to be protecting "the safety of the mother and children."
CBP said that fathers with children, pregnant women, mothers of children with special needs, and other "lucky ones" who are released from the processing center are sent over to Catholic Charities' Humanitarian Respite Center for help. That was my next stop in McAllen. Sister Norma, her staff, and volunteers are truly doing God's work. Catholic Charities provides food, a shower, clean clothes, and medicine to those who need it. The center tries to explain the complicated process to the people, and the volunteers help them get on a bus to a family member in the United States.
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