Dismal conditions for migrants at U.S. border divide U.S. lawmakers
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY., left, testifies before the House Oversight Committee hearing on family separation and detention centers, Friday, July 12, 2019 on Capitol Hill in Washington. Also on the panel is Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
WASHINGTON -- Four House Democratic freshmen who recently toured detention stations for migrants along the Texas border told a House committee Friday of jam-packed, fetid holding areas "in front of the American flag" and accused President Donald Trump of intentional cruelty to discourage future arrivals.
Firing back, a quartet of Republicans from border states told the same panel that Democrats weren't doing anything to ease the crisis and blamed them for posturing that one said was aimed at "Twitter followers and cynical politics."
Meanwhile, Vice-President Mike Pence was touring detention facilities in Texas. After seeing one site where almost 400 men were being held in cages in the sweltering heat, Pence acknowledged, "This is tough stuff."
Friday's House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing offered a microcosm of the nation's red-blue chasm and, perhaps, a chance for each side to vent. But ultimately, it underscored each party's starkly warring views about Trump's hardline anti-immigration policies, suggesting they're destined to be a leading issue for the 2020 presidential and congressional campaigns.
The hearing came as the number of families, children and other migrants entering the U.S. from Mexico has surged above 100,000 monthly since March, overwhelming federal agencies' ability to detain them in sanitary conditions or move them quickly to better housing. It also came days before Trump-ordered nationwide raids targeting people in the U.S. illegally are expected to begin, according to administration officials and immigrant activists, actions that would further inflame the issue.
Before Friday's session began, panel Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., released a report providing new details on 2,648 of the children the Trump administration separated from their families last year before abandoning that policy under widespread pressure. Unknown numbers of others were also separated.
The report, using data the panel demanded from federal agencies, found that 18 children under age 2 -- half who were just months old -- were kept from their parents up to half a year. Hundreds were held longer than previously revealed, including 25 kept over a year, and at least 30 remain apart from their parents.
The figures reflect "a deliberate, unnecessary and cruel choice by President Trump and his administration," the report said.
Congress approved $4.6 billion last month to help improve conditions. But that measure angered liberals who felt it lacked requirements forcing better treatment of migrants, prompting internal frictions that have yet to fully play out.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., the 29-year-old progressive icon, was among the four Democrats -- all women -- who testified. After being sworn in at her request, a practice the committee generally eschews for fellow lawmakers and seemed a taunt at dubious Republicans, she described migrant women telling her they had to sleep on the concrete floor and drink from the toilet because their cell's sink was broken.
"I believe these women," she said. "What was worst about this was the fact that there were American flags hanging all over these facilities, that children were being separated from their parents in front of the American flag," she said.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., was near tears as she displayed a picture she said was of a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl -- the same age as her son -- who died in U.S. custody. She criticized harsh policies "intentionally and cruelly created by a Trump administration dead set on sending a hate-filled message that those seeking refuge are not welcome in America."
Tlaib added, "It's a dangerous ideology that rules our nation right now."
Departing the White House, Trump told reporters without evidence that Ocasio-Cortez' account of women being told to drink from a toilet was "a phoney story she made it up."
As if in counterpoint to Democrats' testimony, Pence and eight GOP lawmakers toured a border station Friday in Donna, Texas, a vast collection of air-conditioned, interconnected tents built in May to temporarily handle 1,000 migrants and currently holding 800. Many lay on mats on the floor, covered by foil blankets as children watched TV.
With Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan translating into Spanish, two children told Pence they'd walked two and three months to arrive. He responded, "God bless you" in English and "gracias" in Spanish.
"Every family I spoke to said they were being well cared for," Pence said, criticizing Democrats' "harsh rhetoric."
Later Friday, though, Pence visited an outdoor portal at the McAllen Border Station, where 384 single men were being held in cages with no cots.
"I was not surprised by what I saw," Pence said. "I knew we'd see a system that was overwhelmed."
Back at the House committee, four border state Republicans sat at the same rectangular witness table as their Democratic counterparts and blamed Democrats for migrants' problems.
Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, mocked Democrats' border trip, accusing them of posing "next to an empty parking lot while making up hyperbole for clips, Twitter followers and cynical politics." Ocasio-Cortez has 4.7 million Twitter followers.
Roy said by not toughening immigration laws, Democrats have "created the very magnet" that attracts migrants to the U.S. and said the House "cowardly sits in the corner, doing nothing" to address the problems that result.
Last week a report by the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general found children at some Texas border facilities who faced clothing shortages and lacked hot meals, while some adults were held for a week in a cell so crowded they had to stand.
The House will soon vote on one bill by Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, tightening oversight of the Homeland Security Department and another by Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., establishing care standards for seized migrants. Senate Democratic legislation would curb family separations and set health and treatment standards.
Also testifying Friday were Escobar and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., who said federal treatment of migrants has "exceeded a level of degradation we should be ashamed is occurring on American soil."
Other Republicans who appeared were Arizona Reps. Debbie Lesko and Andy Biggs and Rep. Michael Cloud, R-Texas.