By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times
McALLEN, Texas — The cells at the U.S. Border Patrol station were once again full, the air fetid with body odor. Women clutched babies in diapers, boys crowded the cell windows, and men were splayed shoulder to shoulder across the floors.
That’s an improvement compared to recent weeks.
The station, which has become a frequent stop for politicians visiting the Rio Grande Valley to survey the ongoing U.S.-Mexico border crisis, drew criticism in recent months after photographs were leaked of overcrowded cells. But the still images go only so far in capturing the place — the institutional coldness, the monotony, the despair.
This week, officials allowed reporters and a Los Angeles Times photographer inside, accompanied by agents. Immigrant advocates, including lawyers and local charities, have been clamoring for access to the McAllen station but so far have not been allowed to set up shop inside.
The windows of 15 cells face a central area, known as “the bubble,” where more than a dozen agents work at computer terminals and supervise the immigrants as they await processing. A sign taped to a window reminds agents in Spanish, “Keep calm and wash your hands.” Agents began wearing long sleeves after some contracted scabies.
A portion of the sally port outside the station is roped off with red plastic tape — the quarantine area.
A woman sitting behind the tape gestured to a guard, and when he gave her permission, she crossed the barrier to a sink, where she undid her brown braid and rinsed lice shampoo from her hair.
Agents used to screen the mostly adult male immigrants for disease by asking them to lift their shirts and giving them the once-over, said Robert Duff, division chief for the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector. When the numbers of women and children jumped in May — a few baby carriers sit in a corner — medical staff were brought in to conduct basic screenings.
A guard opened a cell, and the stench, detectable even with the door closed, intensified. There are no showers here.
In a hallway, five women sat on a concrete bench with their children, waiting to have their belongings bagged and logged in a storage room. They wore shoes without laces; the laces had been removed when they were stopped.
Mylar blankets were everywhere, some of them repurposed. Agents walked by with a boy who had fashioned shoelaces out of blanket strips. A woman had used the Mylar as a hair tie. Two boys were playing with a blanket as if it were a toy, rambunctiously tugging it back and forth.
The number of immigrants coming across the border near the southern tip of Texas, the epicenter of the crisis, has fallen recently, Duff said. Agents are catching about 900 migrants a day crossing the Rio Grande, compared with 1,200 a day last month, he said.
The agents are seeing half as many families as before, and unaccompanied children account for less than 20 percent of the people being apprehended, Duff said. It’s not clear why the numbers have dropped, but the Border Patrol doesn’t expect the trend to last.
The station was built to house migrants temporarily, not for days at a time. Duff said the facility could hold as many as 380 people, though he acknowledged that some officials say it should be fewer. There were 350 detainees on Tuesday, the day of the tour.
They were mostly women and children, and many had surrendered to authorities thinking they would be allowed to stay in the country. The station held grown men too, some with muddy feet and pants, a sign they had tried to escape Border Patrol agents through fields after crossing the river.
At one cell window, a crowd of boys had gathered, their faces a mix of curiosity, nerves, and fatigue. They whispered to one another but never acknowledged the visitors.
Some looked mischievous, others exhausted. Some appeared beyond tears, their eyes red-rimmed.
Photo: Los Angeles Times/MCT/Rick Loomis
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