A tour of two Border Patrol facilities for more than a dozen members of Congress just “went off the rails,” Rep. Joe Kennedy told VICE News.
The tour, organized by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, took place Monday after weeks of accusations that hundreds of migrants, many of them children, are being held in squalid conditions after attempting to seek asylum. The lawmakers wanted to survey the facilities and ask migrants about their experiences, but Customs and Border Protection (CBP) wouldn’t fully cooperate, according to the group.
“CBP was resistant to our requests for information,” said Kennedy, a Democrat from Massachusetts who visited both the El Paso and Clint stations. Customs and Border Protection did not immediately respond to request for comment.
Customs and Border Protection officers told the delegation that they couldn’t take photos of the facility — though Kennedy said one guard tried to take a selfie with New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — or speak to detainees. The politicians managed to speak to a few migrants anyway, Kennedy said, and the conditions they described were horrific.
“One cell had 13 women from Cuba that had been moved into the facility that morning. They were on sleeping bags — no pillows, no air mattresses,” Kennedy said of the Border Patrol station in El Paso. “The cell next door had about 10 people in it, including a 6-year-old boy and a pregnant woman from Cuba. They told stories of a lack of access to medication, a lack of information about what was going on.”
On Twitter, Ocasio-Cortez said detainees were told to drink out of toilets — some facilities have combination toilet and sinks. Ocasio-Cortez said she spoke with several women at the El Paso facility, one of whom described the treatment there as “psychological warfare.”
California Democratic Rep. Judy Chu also spoke of CBP’s unwillingness to let the lawmakers see the whole facility — and even accused the officers of cleaning up before the group arrived at one of the stations.
"CBP didn’t want us to talk to them. They actually prohibited us from doing it, but we went ahead and did it anyway,” she said of the El Paso station. “There were 3 cells of about 15 women each, and the tears were streaming down their faces as they talked about their children being separated from them, the lack of running water, the fact that they had been there for over 50 days and had no idea when they were going to leave.”
The conditions described by Kennedy, Ocasio-Cortez, and other politicians corroborate what attorneys — and migrants themselves — have said Border Patrol stations are like. On Monday, the Associated Press obtained footage of an interview with a 12-year-old girl who had been held at the Clint, Texas station. The girl, who was separated from her aunt at the border, said she and the other children were “treated badly,” forced to sleep on the floor, and were barely given food.
California Democratic Rep. Pete Aguilar, told VICE News that children are still being separated from their families at the border.
“[Border Patrol] made a distinction between ‘family units’ — a mother and father with a child — and ‘family groups,’” Aguilar said. “That could be a grandma or grandpa, uncle or aunt, or an older sibling with a child. It’s different than a mother or father, but it is nonetheless separation from a caretaker and from blood relatives.”
Shortly before the tour began, ProPublica reported that thousands of CBP officers belong to a Facebook group where members regularly share racist anti-immigrant memes and derogatory posts about Democratic politicians. Ocasio-Cortez is a popular target for the group, which boasts more than 9,500 members.
“On the heels of the ProPublica article this morning, it’s really hard for us to build the level of trust that’s necessary to give [CBP] the resources they need,” Aguilar said. “If there are 9,500 individuals on this Facebook page, that means there are individuals on every facility — in every department — that are part of this group that was spewing racist, anti-immigrant messages and messages against members of the House of Representatives.”
The employees in the group are now under investigation, CBP said in a statement. U.S. Border Patrol chief Carla Provost called the posts “completely inappropriate” and said any officers who violated the agency’s code of conduct would be held accountable.
Ocasio-Cortez, Massachusetts's Rep. Ayanna Pressley, and several other members of Congress that visited the stations were also heckled at a press conference after the tours Protesters — many of whom shouted at the politicians in both Spanish and English — called the delegation “liars,” “baby-killers,” and accused them of enabling human trafficking at the border. Their yells drowned out many of the politicians during the press conference.
Cover image: Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, speaks during a press conference calling for an end to immigrant detentions along the Southern United States border held at the United States Capitol in Washington, DC on February 7, 2019. Credit: Alex Edelman / CNP | usage worldwide Photo by: Alex Edelman/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images