Over 4,000 migrants, many kids, crowded into Texas facility

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Migrants are processed at the intake area of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility, the main detention center for unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley, in Donna, Texas, Tuesday, March 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills, Pool)

DONNA, Texas – The Biden administration for the first time Tuesday allowed journalists inside its main border detention facility for migrant children, revealing a severely overcrowded tent structure where more than 4,000 people, including children and families, were crammed into a space intended for 250 and the youngest were kept in a large play pen with mats on the floor for sleeping.

With thousands of children and families arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border in recent weeks and packing facilities, President Joe Biden has been under pressure to bring more transparency to the process. U.S. Customs and Border Protection allowed two journalists from The Associated Press and a crew from CBS to tour the facility in Donna, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley, the nation's busiest corridor for illegal crossings.

More than 4,100 people were being housed on the property Tuesday. Most were unaccompanied children processed in tents before being taken to facilities run by the Department of Health and Human Services and then placed with a family member, relative or sponsor.

The children were being housed by the hundreds in eight "pods" formed by plastic dividers, each about 3,200 square feet (297 square meters) in size. Many of the pods had more than 500 children in them.

Oscar Escamilla, acting executive officer of the U.S. Border Patrol in the Rio Grande Valley, said 250 to 300 kids enter daily and far fewer leave.

The youngest children — among them, 3-year-old girl being cared for by her 11-year-old brother and a newborn with a 17-year-old mother — are kept out of the pods and sleep in a playpen area.

On Tuesday, journalists watched children being processed. They went into a small room for lice inspection and a health check. Their hair was hosed down and towels were tossed in a black bin marked “Lice.” The kids — many of whom have made long journeys to get to the border, including stretches on foot — were also checked for scabies, fever and other ailments. No COVID-19 test was administered unless a child showed symptoms.

Nurse practitioners also gave psychological tests, asking children if they had suicidal thoughts. All shoelaces were removed to avoid harm to anyone.