The first thing I saw was a boy crying. Terrified and sobbing against the window of the holding cell, he couldn’t have been more than 12 or 13. The room was full of other young boys, their curious eyes peering out at us as we walked by. These were the ones who made the trip alone.
The room next door was filled to overflowing with mothers and children, some covered in foil blankets, lying on the cement floor. The next room over was empty, except for the garbage that was being swept away in preparation for its next wave of occupants.
When we stepped outside, I heard a baby wailing over the hum of the industrial fans and the steady words of the federal official giving the tour. The sheer number of people in such a small space made it difficult to quickly pinpoint the source, but I finally spotted the baby being held by a young mother in the quarantine area taped off in the back. The otherwise quiet crowd simply stared back at us. The very real human consequences of our country’s lax border security and muddled immigration policies huddled right there, under an open shelter in the stifling South Texas heat.
This is the McAllen Border Patrol detention facility, where men, women and children of all ages who have illegally entered the United States are detained and processed. Some are caught attempting to cross the border, while some give themselves over willingly. Many are children from Central America traveling alone, who have paid coyotes to smuggle them through Mexico or made the trip on the tops of freight trains. All have quite literally risked their lives to set foot in our country.
It’s impossible to see these children without wondering how many more were lost somewhere along the way. The desert’s a dangerous place to begin with, even before the worst of summer’s brutal heat arrives, and the border is trafficked by treacherous individuals who see fellow humans as an expendable means to turn a dollar.
What’s happening along our southern border is a mounting tragedy. Its root cause is Washington’s failure — diplomatically and strategically — to address our border security and illegal immigration problem.
To be clear, the federal officials who operate these facilities daily are doing the best they can with what they have; trying desperately to keep up with a seemingly unending tide of immigrants coming to our border because they’ve heard current U.S. policy will quickly reunite them with loved ones in our country.
This is a complex situation and a growing humanitarian crisis that will require a multifaceted solution. But it’s a situation I fear our president will continue to brush off until he has seen it first-hand.
The United States needs to act decisively. First off, the federal government needs to make it crystal clear that attempting to cross our border illegally simply isn’t worth the considerable risk. People in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and elsewhere who are considering making the trip need to know that they will be immediately sent back to their country of origin when they’re detained. They will not be sent to various locations across the United States or placed in the care of loved ones.
Secondly, the U.S. government needs to send more resources to finally, once and for all, secure the border. Federal engagement was insufficient to begin with and the crush of those entering illegally is draining what resources they had in the area. These gaping holes are just waiting to be exploited by drug cartels and trans-national gangs, and create a national security issue as they could be used by people from countries with known terrorist affiliations.
That’s why Texas has directed the state’s Department of Public Safety to amplify its law enforcement operations along the border, targeting the criminals who are seeking to take advantage of this humanitarian crisis.
This is a problem, however, beyond the scope of just one state. We’ll do what we can, but it’s up to Washington to move quickly to ease the suffering that I witnessed on Monday afternoon — suffering that is mirrored in federal facilities across border states.
Until they step up to the task, that suffering will continue, as will the tragedies we don’t even know about that are taking place on both sides of this unsecured border.