The media were allowed into an overcrowded Customs and Border Protection facility Tuesday in Donna, Texas, where thousands of migrants are being kept in cramped "pods" where they sleep on mats on the floor.
The pandemic capacity of the south Texas intake facility is 250 people, but 4,100 people were being held there Tuesday. Over 3,400 of them were children, the youngest of them 4 months old.
"The smugglers just drop them off" near the border, Deputy Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz said.
CBP officials walked a news crew through a series of the 3,200-square-foot pods where the unaccompanied minors sleep. Under Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, each should hold only 32 children. The three reviewed by the media had 516, 576 and 615 per pod.
Some were being kept in an area that was supposed to be an indoor play space but had been converted to a sleep area when it went over capacity.
Officials said the migrants get three hot meals a day and two snack times.
Some of the children waved to the cameras as reporters went by. A girl was seen wiping tears from her eyes.
More than 2,000 migrants have been there past the legal limit of 72 hours, and at least 39 unaccompanied migrant children have been in the facility for more than 15 days.
"Our facilities were never designed to hold people for more than a couple of days," Ortiz said, adding that if he could deliver one message to migrants heading to the border, it would be, "Don't come right now."
The Border Patrol has encountered an average of 5,000 undocumented immigrants a day over the past 30 days, a senior Border Patrol official told reporters last week.
In May 2019, the Border Patrol encountered more than 144,000 undocumented immigrants, a 12-year high. March is likely to surpass that, reaching 150,000 crossings.
Many of the immigrants are still being turned back to Mexico under an authorization from the CDC to combat the spread of Covid-19, but unaccompanied children and some migrant families are staying in the U.S.
Oscar Escamilla, the acting executive officer for Border Patrol's Rio Grande Valley operations, said he was concerned that the situation in Donna could become common if the CDC policy is revoked in the near future.
"If on April 21 they do not renew Title 42, you can expect every single facility on the southwest border will be just like this," Escamilla said.
While Democratic and Republican lawmakers have visited Donna in recent weeks and complained about the cramped conditions there, the Biden administration had kept reporters out of the facility until Tuesday. President Joe Biden told reporters last week that he would "commit to transparency" after the administration restored immigration infrastructure that was dismantled by the Trump administration, but he did not provide a timeline.