MCALLEN, Texas — Hundreds of young migrants are being kept behind metal wire — the type you'd see on a neighborhood batting cage or a dog kennel — inside the country's largest immigration processing center.
A Department of Homeland Security official called the facility, known as Ursula, the "epicenter" of the Trump administration's policy that has separated thousands of children from their parents.
A total of 1,174 children have been taken away from their parents and brought to the Border Patrol's Central Processing Station in McAllen, Texas, since the policy was announced, according to Manuel Padilla, the Border Patrol chief of the Rio Grande Valley Sector.NBC News was part of a group that went behind Ursula's highly-secured doors Sunday to see firsthand what migrants go through before separations occur.
The facility has spanned multiple presidential administrations but a new "zero tolerance" policy that Trump's own top staff and Cabinet officials have explicitly said is causing children to be taken from their parents as part of an effort to deter border crossings has turned the spotlight on it.
Cameras were not permitted on the tour, but the Border Patrol provided handout images of the stark situation: 1,129 migrants were detained in the 77,000-square-foot facility, nearly all of them behind the metal wire.
Mylar blankets, the type marathon runners wrap themselves in after finishing a race, covered the bodies of migrants throughout as they lay on mattresses atop concrete floors.
In the 55,000-square-feet of the facility dedicated to families and unaccompanied minors, detainees were sorted based on age, gender, and family status into what the Border Patrol called four pods: one for girls aged 17-and-under, another for boys 17-and-under, mothers with children and fathers with children.
Agents are overwhelmed. John Lopez, the deputy patrol agent in charge, told NBC News they lack manpower and the system is strained — and here, they're only separating less than half of the families so far.
Parents who are separated from their children aren't taken away until they are brought into processing to leave the facility — only at the moment they find out if they'll be prosecuted, instead of taken to an ICE detention center with their children, to they receive what is called a "tear sheet" informing them of their fate and how they might find their children again.
For some, agents said, that moment comes not with one of the 10 permanent processing agents but with virtual ones — video chats with agents in El Paso, En Centro or Corpus Christi — an effort to provide support for a system they say is understaffed.Only four social workers were on hand to care for the hundreds of children, a backup system when Border Patrol agents are not prepared or qualified to deal with the challenges that come with caring for a child.Many are alone in the facility before they are picked up and taken into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services, which cares for unaccompanied migrant children, whether they arrived on their own, or now find themselves that way.Trump has repeatedly blamed Democrats opposed to his immigration reform proposal, falsely crediting an anti-trafficking law that passed unanimously in 2008 under President George W. Bush for the separations.
The detention of children apart from their parents is a result of the policy mandated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and there is no law that requires family separation. As such, congressional action is not necessary to stop it.
Sessions has said the intent is to eventually prosecute everyone who crosses the border illegally.
Last week, Sessions gave a full-throated defense of the policy leading to family separations, saying having children does not give migrants immunity from prosecution and citing the Bible as justification."Non-citizens who cross our borders unlawfully, between our ports of entry, with children are not an exception," the attorney general said. "They are the ones who broke the law, they are the ones who endangered their own children on their trek."