MCALLEN, Texas — Parents and their children huddled on the floor outside the Border Patrol station in McAllen, Texas, the predawn glare of floodlights reflecting off the thin thermal blankets they covered themselves with as they waited for their names to be called.
“Maria...Sandra...Nayeli,” a Border Patrol agent yelled through a megaphone around 5 a.m. Wednesday.
A woman with a child in her arms threw her hand in the air from the floor where hundreds of other families were trying to rest during the predawn roll call. They were all crammed in a driveway and outdoor area on the west side of the station, which has been converted into a holding site for hundreds of migrant families, most of them from Central America.
People who were held at the McAllen Border Patrol site told BuzzFeed News adults and children had to sleep outside on dirt and grass. Families were also forced to wake up hours before dawn for a head count, with agents rousing children who managed to get a coveted space inside the tent to wait outside, they said.
Images of migrants, including children, sleeping outside with thermal blankets were first published by CNN, which got them from a source with access to the facility and who was “disturbed” by the conditions. In one photo, a woman is sitting on rocks, leaning on the side of the building, and clutching a baby. In another, a young girl is sleeping on the grass, a baby bottle inches from her feet.
US Customs and Border Protection has said its agents have been overwhelmed by the number of migrant families showing up at the southern border, forcing them to hold people in encampments like the one in McAllen because their facilities don’t have enough space. In April, Border Patrol detained 98,977 migrants, many of them families, who have entered the US unauthorized between official border crossings, a number that continues to grow each month.
CBP declined to comment on the descriptions people gave, but said the CNN pictures were legitimate. BuzzFeed agreed to only identify detainees using their first initial and last name because they feared retaliation from immigration authorities.
G. Hernandez, 36, of Honduras crossed the border with her 14-year-old son, as well as a niece and nephew. Hernandez spent three nights at the McAllen Border Patrol station after crossing the Rio Grande on a raft with a group of migrants and turning themselves into agents.
“We were mistreated,” Hernandez told BuzzFeed News in Spanish. “I thought the US treated people better, but they treated us so bad.”
There wasn’t enough room for everyone to sleep on the pavement inside the tents Border Patrol had set up, so some mothers and children had to sleep outside. During the weekend it began to rain and people got drenched while trying to sleep, Hernandez said.
“We had to sleep in the water with only the plastic blankets they gave us,” she added.
Her son, Oscar, sat next to her at the bus station wearing a Superman T-shirt he got at a Catholic Charities immigrant relief center in McAllen.
“We were all piled on top of each other on the pavement. We hardly slept,” Oscar said. “We weren’t allowed to shower either.”
And while they were grateful for the twice-daily meals, Hernandez said the soggy ham sandwiches were almost inedible.
“It was like food for a dog,” she said. “Why do they treat us like this? Why do they treat migrants like this?”
A Border Patrol agent outside the station declined to answer specific questions about the conditions at the holding site. Asked if people were forced to sleep outside, the agent said it was a possibility.
“Well, they wanted to come here,” the agent added. “We’re just dealing with it.”
Border Patrol facilities were built to hold single adults, mostly from Mexico, who had recently crossed. But the number of families now crossing the border has outstripped the agency’s capacity. Border Patrol agents detained more than 58,474 immigrant families along the US–Mexico border in April, the highest monthly number since CBP started tracking the figure in 2012.
In order to deal with the influx, immigration officials have erected two new tent camps in El Paso and Donna, Texas, to house thousands of immigrants arrested at the border. In South Texas, including McAllen, Border Patrol started using aircraft to relocate migrants to other parts of the border in order to start processing them, the Washington Post reported. Authorities have also installed similar tents outside Border Patrol stations in Brownsville and Rio Grande City to deal with the influx.
Some of the conditions described in the McAllen station resemble those at a temporary outdoor detention camp under in El Paso, where hundreds of migrants were held in March. The immigrants, detained behind a chain-link fence topped with razor wire, said they experienced cold and windy nights sleeping on bare, rocky dirt underneath the Paso del Norte International Bridge that links Ciudad Juarez in Mexico and El Paso. Most of the immigrants had nothing but thin thermal blankets.
Last week, Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Health and Human Services lacked the capacity to keep up with the adults and children they're detaining. Because its holding facilities are over capacity, Border Patrol has also had to directly release thousands of migrants, like Hernandez and her son, instead of waiting for ICE to pick them up.
Officials, including Provost, have blamed federal court decisions that limit how long children can be held in detention, saying it’s a magnet for people considering crossing the border. The releases have been pejoratively called "catch and release" by President Trump and immigration hawks.
"They have received the message loud and clear: Bring a child, you will be released,” Provost told the committee. "We must maintain the ability to deliver consequences, or we will lose control of the border."
S. Reyes, a Honduran mother who crossed the border without authorization with her toddler son, said the trip through Mexico from Central America wasn’t easy, but being held by Border Patrol made her feel powerless and defeated.
“It was all very sad,” Reyes said as her son slept in the seat next to her at the bus station. “They treated us with no respect, like we were less than human, like animals.”
When it rained this past weekend, Reyes said she did her best to cover her 1-year-old son, because there was no point in asking for blankets or more food.
“If you complain or say anything, they’d get mad at you,” she said.