CBS News gets exclusive look inside America's largest migrant processing facility

Inside America's largest migrant facility

Last Updated Jul 18, 2019 5:26 PM EDT

Hidalgo, Texas — At the heart of the immigration crisis are images of families held in detention centers. CBS News cameras were allowed exclusively inside the largest migrant processing facility in the country. One woman at the Ursula processing facility, who is there with her young son, explained how she crossed into the U.S. illegally in search of a safer and better life. 

Angelina Estrada and her 2-year-old son Martin are just one of the 815 families at the facility in McAllen, Texas. She said she's a journalist who was threatened by the Venezuelan government. She knows that as a mother with a child, she would be allowed to enter the U.S.

She said they're getting warm food and diapers, but also said they're sleeping on the floor on mats. It's extraordinary to see mothers and their children, sleeping together on the floor in the 77,000 square foot facility.

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Norah O'Donnell speaks with a mother who came to the U.S. from Venezuela with her young son. CBS News

The toughest thing to see are infants, alone, napping mid-morning in a makeshift nursery. They are just some of the nearly 300 unaccompanied children there. Without parents, they are being cared for by members of the Coast Guard.

With exclusive access to the facility, there was no one CBS News wasn't allowed to speak with and nowhere we couldn't go. Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan was there, along with Carmen Qualia, the chief Border Patrol agent who runs the facility in the Rio Grande Valley.

"I made the decision to take the risk in bringing cameras in to be transparent about what we're facing," McAleenan said. "I think we need a national conversation based on the facts that are actually happening on our border to try to address and solve the problems."

A year ago, the country was shocked by photos showing children being held in overcrowded cages. Today, it is cleaner and more well organized, but it is still hard to look at.

The conditions for families are much different than at the McAllen Border Patrol station for adults, where Vice President Mike Pence visited last week. When asked why they just got shower units last week, McAleenan pointed to a "lack of funding."

"We prioritize children, obviously. We prioritize families, second. And single adults are-- are the third to get that kind of humanitarian support," he said. 

McAleenan said a lack of funding from Congress has been a "critical issue." He said the solution is a so-called tent city, named Donna, which is expanding. McAleenan said it is far better suited to house new migrants. 
                                                                                                                                              
"It just provided a lot more capacity. The big challenge of the overcrowding is people are uncomfortable 'cause there's too many in small areas. We're gonna be able to reduce that," he said.

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    Norah O'Donnell is the anchor and managing editor of the "CBS Evening News." She also contributes to "60 Minutes."