McALLEN – Seated at the center of a chain-link pod detention center are a group of detained male children, all above the age of 10, waiting to processed and released by the United States Border Patrol.
They are watching television, to the side of them make up the rest of the pods which have cells holding family members for some, or just strangers they have met along the five-week journey to the United States border from Central America.
The turn around time for those arriving at the building, which has a 22,000-square-foot and a 55,000-square-foot holding area, is approximately 60 hours. During that time each individual will be processed. Each section is nicknamed after their size, 22k and 55k.
Carmen Qualia is the Acting Executive Officer for the facility. She in charge of everything happening inside. Qualia explained the ins and outs of the facility during a recent media tour, where for security reasons no cameras, phones or even smart watches were allowed.
Being processed is broken into intake, processing, detention and output.
In the field security is top priority. Agents assess whether there are any violent types of persons being apprehended, do any of the individuals have injuries and so forth. Next comes trying to figure out who they are, do they come from a family, are they an unaccompanied child or are they a single adult.
In the McAllen area, where most of the traffic is coming from, they are either going to end up at the McAllen station or 22k to be processed.
The process includes biographical information, biometrics including finger prints and being classified whether medical attention is needed. There are four medical stations in the RGV Sector. At 22k there are two medical stations.
Currently, sector-wide there is just under 6,000 individuals in the custody of the Border Patrol. The numbers are fluid and change everyday.
“There is an over 200 percent increase in family units,” Qualia said.
Individuals are being held across the entire sector that includes singles and families because all unaccompanied children do come the Ursula station. Qualia can fill the need to provide services for them.
During the walk-through, several individuals were still awaiting to have their biometrics completed, within some of those people there are criminals but for the most part they are unaccompanied minors and family units.
There are 2,400 people in the Ursula facility. There is a lot of movement, but individuals know how long they will be detained.
The use of chain-link fencing was established for security reasons. In order to have the facility, the environment needs to be safe for everyone being detained. In order for the Border Patrol to accomplish that, they have to be able to see where everyone is at all times. If the Border Patrol were to work with the traditional hard wall cells, they would not be able to see situations as they arise.
The Ursula building has an annual budget of $12.5 million. That money has been spent in almost six months. Additional funds have been requested. In family units alone the 200 percent increase, which means the facility is about 100 percent over capacity.
“It is important because this is our baseline, we are bringing in all kinds of resources,” Qualia said. “We have 300 personnel, 85 northern border personnel that are here, we are meeting with FEMA for additional capabilities because we have to now raise the baseline of operations, which is really a policy crisis.”
Historically, after the process is complete, Qualia is going to route people based on their removal process. Where they go is different based situation. The one group that does not change is unaccompanied children.
Unaccompanied children get referred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). They will find placement for them at places like the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.
The family units, because of the volume, border patrol has no other choice than to release them to the community.
The staff at the Ursula facility are primarily agents that get detailed from the nine stations across the sector. They average about 120 people a day on duty which equals about 40 people a shift.
An additional 300 Office of Field Operation officers and an additional 85 agents from other sectors.
“I was told those numbers were going to increase within the next couple of weeks,” Qualia said. “We will even be bringing more agents to the area to help.”
While National Guard is helping with the mission for the RGV Sector, at the Ursula facility they only assist in property management and bringing in supplies.
After 12 straight days of apprehending more than 1,000 people, the United States border is in a policy crisis.
People arrive because they know they cannot be detained for more than 20 days if they are a family unit. The immigrants know exactly what goes on inside the Ursula facility. The word gets around from other immigrants. The same immigrants know if they claim credible fear, they will get a future date and time before an immigrant judge.
“Where we go from here, from my perspective, I have to keep managing it,” Qualia said. “That is why we brought in all these resources.”
But make no mistake, there are no other options than to release those who have been processed into the community.
It was like one agent said, people from Central America know they have a 90 percent chance to be let it to the United States, so it is worth their while to make to five-week journey.
Addressing credible fear process, which is the biggest draw right now, and the family units not being allowed to be detained, are the main focus points of policy that need to changed.
A family unit, which one would think is a mother, father and children is not the issue for the border patrol, in fact Qualia said they are not seeing that.
“What we are seeing is a solo parent, male head of household and child,” she said. “I know we refer to them as families, but they are coming to us like that because they know.”