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.