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Congress members who tried to tour 11 immigrant detention facilities this week were denied the visits, according to Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings.
In a letter to acting Department of Homeland Security secretary Kevin McAleenan, Cummings claims DHS blocked access to 11 Border Patrol stations that Congress members had toured last week where they found “serious ongoing problems with the treatment of children and adults in DHS custody.”
Members of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, which Cummings chairs, found multiple abuses at ICE and Customs and Border Protection facilities last week, according to the letter. A detainee at one Border Patrol station, for example, said guards had told a child who had spilled soup on the floor was told he wouldn’t get more food unless he ate the spilled soup off the ground.
A few, but not all, of the locations were cited by name.
At the Adams County Correctional Center in Natchez, Mississippi — where some of the immigrants arrested in massive ICE raids at chicken plants in the state are being held — one detainee shouted that he was being abused and humiliated, the letter says. Instead of letting staff speak to him, though, an ICE official “threatened to end the tour immediately and cancel future site visits” if the members of Congress tried to talk to detainees.
Despite these issues, DHS initially signed off on a second series of visits scheduled to start on Aug. 27. But the day before the first visit, CBP told the committee that McAleenan and the agency’s acting commissioner decided the visits were off because the Congress members hadn’t been cooperative during their previous visits. The agency also imposed new restrictions on future visits, including a two-hour time limit. During previous congressional visits, members have been told they aren’t allowed to take photos or speak with detainees.
This isn’t the first time members of Congress have spoken out against a lack of transparency in the immigrant detention system.
Several members who toured CBP facilities in July told VICE News they were forbidden from talking to detainees or taking photos — something they did anyway. Rep. Julian Castro even snuck a camera into one facility, where he and other members of Congress spoke with women who had been detained there for nearly two months and hadn’t showered in weeks.
In his letter to McAleenan, Cummings said he’s concerned DHS is trying to limit transparency and accountability.
“It appears that the Administration expects Congress to be satisfied with receiving agency tours of facilities — in some cases without the ability to photograph conditions or interview detainees — and not to question the policies or decisions that agency officials make,” he wrote.
Members of Congress have sounded the alarm about deplorable conditions in Border Patrol stations in the past. After the July congressional visit, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said she spoke with women who had been held there for more than 50 days and had been denied necessary medications.
Cover: Smoke rises above the Adams County Correctional Center in Natchez, Miss., Sunday, May 20, 2012, during an inmate disturbance at the prison. (AP Photos/The Natchez Democrat, Lauren Wood)