As Democrats spotlight poor conditions in migrant facilities, VP Pence tours centers
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Rashida Tlaib gave impassioned testimony at a hearing on migrant facilities. USA TODAY
WASHINGTON – Two events Friday more than 1,700 miles apart put on display the deep divisions over the worsening migrant crisis at the southern U.S. border and how to solve it.
Republicans and Democrats sparred over the migrant crisis throughout a tense House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing, with liberals blaming the Trump administration's policies for causing the problems and conservatives pointing to solutions posed by President Donald Trump to overhaul laws aiming to halt the flow of individuals seeking asylum in the U.S.
Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence and a group of Republican senators — battling to shape public opinion about the crisis — traveled to Texas to tour two Border Patrol facilities. At one, they met with migrant families and children and touted the high level of care they had received. At the second, they encounter hundreds of men in cages some of whom claimed they'd been held longer than 40 days and were hungry.
The dueling events put all eyes — and TV cameras — on conditions at the facilities, which have drawn intense scrutiny due to reports chronicling severe overcrowding and inadequate care for migrant families. All of this comes against the backdrop of the deaths of at least six migrant children who have died in federal custody and Trump's threat of nationwide raids this weekend by Immigration and Customs Enforcement that would leave even more undocumented migrants in federal custody.
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Democrats highlight unsafe conditions
As the migrant crisis worsens along the southern U.S. border, both Democrats and Republicans appeared to dig in their heels.
The House Oversight hearing started with a panel of Republican lawmakers from border states, who called for limiting asylum and changing laws, and Democrats, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who visited border facilities earlier this month decrying the conditions they witnessed.
Throughout the hearing, Democrats on the committee put the spotlight on the Trump administration and the policies they say contributed to the mistreatment of migrants in detention centers, including its zero-tolerance policy that led to the separation of families and an increase of those detained in detention centers.
Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., started off the hearing, calling the policies "inhumane" and saying they only worsened the situation along the border.
"The Administration is detaining thousands of people who do not need to be detained and are not required to be detained. These policies are contributing to massive overcrowding, which is aggravating conditions, draining supplies, and endangering the health and safety of both detainees and government personnel," Cummings explained.
He added: "This is about our values as Americans. And we need to do everything in our power to make sure we are living up to those values as a nation." After the hearing, Cummings said he hoped the testimony helped lawmakers identify solutions to the crisis.
Ocasio-Cortez, along with Reps. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., and Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, started off the hearing testifying about their visit to the border earlier this month, where they toured a detention facility in Clint, Texas, and met with families who said they had been separated.
In an impassioned speech, Ocasio-Cortez got emotional describing the 17 women she met touring the detention center and the conditions they described. The worst part, Ocasio-Cortez said, was that American flags were displayed everywhere as she listened to migrants who said they had sores and had been sleeping on the floors.
"Children being separated from their parents in front of an American flag," she told the panel. "Women were being called these names under an American flag. We cannot allow for this."
Tlaib also got emotional during her testimony as she talked about meeting a young boy and a pregnant woman during their tour. "She was glowing," Tlaib said about the woman, as she wiped her eyes with a tissue.
Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley rubbed Tlaib's back as she said the woman had now been freed from after nearly a month in the center.
The Border Patrol facility in Clint made headlines after a group of lawyers who had spent time there went public with their findings, detailing children sleeping on floors and being held without access to medical care, clean water or toothbrushes. It has become the epicenter of the migrant crisis in large part because assessing conditions at border facilities is difficult due to limited access to sites.
The congressional committee also heard from Republican members who represent border states and who say they have watched the crisis worsen for years. Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz, Rep. Michael Cloud, R-Texas, Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., Rep. Chip Roy, D-Texas., each spotlighted what they've seen in migrant shelters, describing clean facilities and compassionate border agents who try to help migrants but are overwhelmed due to Congress not taking action to change immigration laws.
Texas Rep. Roy called out both parties while talking about the alleged mistreatment at border facilities. USA TODAY
Biggs defended border agents who work in the facilities and appeared to call out Ocasio-Cortez for her rhetoric about the facilities and its employees. Looking over at Ocasio-Cortez, he said Democrats were after only "clicks, Twitter followers and cynical politics."
"The fact is, both parties have failed," he said. "There is a path to fix this."
Rep. Jim Jordan, the top Republican on the committee, agreed.
"This is one of the greatest challenges of our time and as we all know, it’s getting worse by the day," said Jordan, R-Ohio, in his opening statement. "I hope the Democrats will stop in their obsession of attacking the president and will actually work collaboratively to fix this crisis."
Friday's hearing room was packed, including with families and protesters wearing T-shirts emblazoned with "STOP ICE." Protesters and activists lined the hallway outside, hoping to watch the proceedings. Some of those protesters, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with "Families belong together," interrupted the hearing by standing up and holding up posters with testimonies of some migrant children printed onto them.
The committee also heard from experts, lawyers, Trump's former ICE Director Thomas Homan and Jennifer Costello, the Department of Homeland Security's acting inspector general, who issued the scathing watchdog reports chronicling unsafe conditions inside detention facilities.
The hearing followed a report released by Costello this month that described the conditions at detention facilities in the Rio Grande Valley as "a ticking time bomb." The report included photos showing migrants crowded behind chain-link fences, huddling under blankets on the floor and some holding up their hands and signs.
Throughout the hearing, Costello called the conditions "shocking" and said her office was currently working to investigate the primary reasons behind the degrading conditions.
Homan, visibly frustrated throughout the hearing, shot back at Democrats multiple times, sticking up for the work of border agents and pleading for Congress to step in and enact changes to halt the flow of migrants in facilities. He pointed to asylum law changes that might deter those in Central America from making the dangerous trek to the U.S.
"I’m the only one who has worn a green uniform and been on that line. I’m the only one who has found dead aliens on the trail that were abandoned by smugglers," Homan said during the hearing. "I was there — and I saw and I smelt it and it’s terrible, and I still have nightmares to this day."
But Democrats disagreed.
"I don’t think the problem is the asylum laws," Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a member of the committee, said after the hearing. "I think the problem was the zero-tolerance policy which seemed calculated to strip children away from their parents and to create intolerable conditions for families."
Later this month, the committee will hear testimony from Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan about the centers and the separation of families.
Pence aims to counter claims about facilities
While Democrats zeroed in on what they say is the Trump administration's inhumane treatment of migrant families, Pence and Republican senators sought to counter that narrative by showcasing the facilities in front of TV cameras.
Pence brought along journalists and cameras as he toured a newly opened immigration holding center in Donna, Texas, where families and children watched TVs and lied on the floor under thin, tinfoil-like blankets. Most information about these facilities, including the horrid conditions included in newspaper reports and lawsuits, come from people on the inside because access is limited to the centers. Even members of Congress were told they could not bring in cameras or their cell phones when they toured a facility earlier this month.
"I couldn’t be more impressed," Pence said of the border agents who he met, adding that every American would be proud of their work.
'The crisis is real': Mike Pence sees 'tough stuff' and 'compassionate work' at Texas border facilities
Throughout the tour, Pence and senators talked with migrant children and asked whether they were being properly cared for and had food. They nodded, some telling the vice president, "si." Other said no when Pence asked if they had a place to "get cleaned up."
The facility that Pence toured is a processing center and not one of those cited as being chronically overcrowded. But it's also where the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general has said migrants are receiving substandard care.
The facility, an air-conditioned tent complex, opened in early May on the border about 20 miles from McAllen and just yards from an international bridge connecting the United States to Mexico. It is broken up into four 8,000-square-foot pods that resemble a high school gymnasium with a linoleum, rock-patterned floor. There is space for intake processing and restrooms with showers and laundry facilities.
"Every family I spoke to said they were being well cared for," Pence said, decrying the "harsh rhetoric" of Democrats.
Pence later toured a facility in McAllen, which was in worse conditions than the Donna migrant center. According to a pool report, there was a horrendous stench in the facility where nearly 400 men were housed in sweltering cages, and some of the detainees shouted to reporters that they had been held 40 days or longer and complained that they were hungry.
Michael Banks, the Border Patrol agent in charge, disputed some of the men’s claims that they had been held 40 days. Banks also explained that the facility is cleaned three times a day but that the facility previously didn't have showers until Thursday when a trailer shower arrived.
Pence said the overcrowding demonstrates why immigration laws needed to be changed.
"Even in the face of our overwhelmed facilities, @CBP is providing humane and compassionate care," the vice president wrote on Twitter Friday evening. "Congress MUST reform our laws to end this unsustainable crisis of illegal immigration at the border."
In a second tweet later in the day, Pence directly addressed the situation at the McAllen facility, saying the facility "is a prime example of why we need to secure our borders. The facility is overcrowded and our system is overwhelmed." In the same tweet, the vice president called on congressional Democrats "to step up, do their jobs, and end this crisis."
At a roundtable discussion that included Border Patrol officials and Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee before his visit to the McAllen facility, Pence said praised the work of Border Patrol agents at the Donna facility and the care they were providing to migrant families.
Slamming Democrats who have called the situation on the border “a manufactured crisis,” Pence said the U.S. has a moral obligation to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws.
"The facts are, we have a crisis on our southern border that is being driven by human traffickers," he said.
Contributing: Michael Collins, Maureen Groppe and Alan Gomez