That’s me in the white shirt, in this 2014 Border Patrol photo reproduced in a June 6 Washington Post fact-check piece. The article’s author found fault with Sen. Jeff Merkley’s (D-Oregon) portrayal of the site we’re walking through, Border Patrol’s “Ursula Street” Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas, as “hundreds of children locked up in cages.”
The photo, which shows kids behind chain-link fencing (call it “cages”), comes from an August 2014 visit to McAllen and Reynosa, Mexico with Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts, yellow shirt). (Rep. McGovern published some photos from that trip, and we at WOLA made an elaborate podcast episode about it.)
We were some of the first to be let into the Ursula facility, which had just opened to deal with the wave of unaccompanied Central American children that made national headlines in May-June 2014. It was meant to be a place where unaccompanied kids would stay for a maximum of 72 hours while the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, located relatives or other shelters for each child to stay with.
Migrants who’ve been through there call the “Ursula” facility “la Perrera” because it looks like a dog kennel. And Sen. Merkley is right: kids were, and are, being kept in chain-link enclosures in what was once a warehouse. This was true even in 2014, when Barack Obama was president.
The facility was rather empty when we showed up in early August, as the 2014 unaccompanied children “surge” receded quickly after June.
We were jarred by the fencing, the concrete floors, the mylar blankets, and the always-on lighting reminiscent of a Costco. It was dehumanizing. But though I mentioned my shock in the podcast, I didn’t dwell on it.
Conditions at Ursula were—still are—illustrative of the American people’s stinginess with these unwanted arrivals: there was no budget for anything nicer than this, and Congress wasn’t about to put up more. And in fact, Border Patrol agents were happy to show it off because, after a mad scramble to attend to the previous months’ sudden wave of kids, they were relieved to have managed to scratch together the resources and to throw this space together. It brought some sanity to a chaotic resettlement process.
Harsh as the “dog kennel” was, it was far better than what came before it. As the Office of Refugee Resettlement struggled for many weeks to meet the sudden demand for its services, Border Patrol’s McAllen station found itself having to keep hundreds of kids and families in small holding cells designed to keep adults for no more than a day. Those filled up, and leaked videos showed kids crowding the floors of the Border Patrol station, even out behind on the loading dock, in medieval conditions. The Ursula facility was dramatically better.
Also, those boxes along the wall in the photo were filled with snacks, coloring books, crayons, and diapers. Border Patrol agents, many visibly exhausted from the past few months’ tens of thousands of arrivals, were trying to keep the kids comfortable while they watched the TVs showing kids’ shows in each enclosure. Nurses and EMTs were present in the facility. Kids were able to take showers for the first time in days.
Most of all, this was a temporary purgatory. The kids we saw were just a few days away from being reunited with relatives all around the United States, in many cases parents whom they hadn’t seen in years. The gears of refugee resettlement were grinding, and many if not most of their journeys were about to end happily.
That was then. Today, though, the situation is different. And the pictures you’re seeing now look similar but are more sinister.
At least since mid-April, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared “zero tolerance” on all illegal border-crossers, the Ursula facility went from being a temporary warehouse to a scene of intense pain.
Most people still stay here for less than 72 hours. But today, a section is dedicated to families—and it’s here where U.S. authorities are most frequently taking kids away from their parents: 1,174 of them so far in Ursula alone, of more than 2,000 nationwide since mid-April. Parents are being criminally charged for the offense of crossing the border improperly, sent to federal court and federal prison. And because people in the criminal justice system can’t be jailed with their kids, Border Patrol and CBP are taking their children away from them and treating them like unaccompanied minors.
“In the Rio Grande Valley, Border Patrol agents who catch immigrant families have been advised not to separate them in the field,” the Los Angeles Times explains. “They wait until after they drive families to the central processing center in McAllen.”
Anne Chandler of the Houston-based Tahirih Justice Center explained to Texas Monthly what is happening right now at Ursula.
There is no one process. Judging from the mothers and fathers I’ve spoken to and those my staff has spoken to, there are several different processes. Sometimes they will tell the parent, “We’re taking your child away.” And when the parent asks, “When will we get them back?” they say, “We can’t tell you that.” Sometimes the officers will say, “because you’re going to be prosecuted” or “because you’re not welcome in this country,” or “because we’re separating them,” without giving them a clear justification. In other cases, we see no communication that the parent knows that their child is to be taken away. Instead, the officers say, “I’m going to take your child to get bathed.” That’s one we see again and again. “Your child needs to come with me for a bath.” The child goes off, and in a half an hour, twenty minutes, the parent inquires, “Where is my five-year-old?” “Where’s my seven-year-old?” “This is a long bath.” And they say, “You won’t be seeing your child again.” Sometimes mothers—I was talking to one mother, and she said, “Don’t take my child away,” and the child started screaming and vomiting and crying hysterically, and she asked the officers, “Can I at least have five minutes to console her?” They said no. In another case, the father said, “Can I comfort my child? Can I hold him for a few minutes?” The officer said, “You must let them go, and if you don’t let them go, I will write you up for an altercation, which will mean that you are the one that had the additional charges charged against you.” So, threats.
Media outlets and social-media users have come under fire for using 2014 photos of the Ursula facility to attack the new Trump policies. And the critics have a point—the conditions in the “kennel” are an artifact of the Obama years, nothing new.
But the critics are also wrong. Under the Trump administration, this facility has become a far darker place. Until this April, Ursula was where kids would spend a couple of days while awaiting family reunification and the beginning of an asylum process. Now, it’s the last place where they see their parents.