A visit by House Democrats to Customs and Border Protection facilities at the U.S. southern border grew heated Monday as lawmakers reported harsh conditions and tight restraints on what they were allowed to view and document.
“They tried to restrict what we saw, take our phones, block photos and video,” Massachusetts Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III tweeted. “Atmosphere was contentious and uncooperative.”
The delegation, led by Texas Rep. Veronica Escobar, was at the border to visit CBP processing facilities in Clint and El Paso in Texas that government watchdog reports and immigrant advocates have recently criticized as being unsuitable for housing migrants — especially women and children.
The tours came the same day President Donald Trump signed a $4.59 billion supplemental spending bill for cash-strapped agencies dealing with poor conditions and overcrowded shelters for the unprecedented surge of migrants at the southern border in recent months.
House Democrats passed the Senate version of the bill after their push for stricter oversight and protections for migrant children in government custody failed to garner enough support. The Senate bill provided some protections, but did not go as far.
Several lawmakers decried what they witnessed Monday after visiting the El Paso facility.
“What we saw was appalling and disgusting,” Rep. Judy Chu said in a video on Twitter.
The California Democrat said she met migrants who complained of not having running water, being separated from children and not having access to epilepsy medication.
“One woman said that when she asked for water, Border Patrol told her to drink from the toilet,” Chu said.
At a press conference after the tour of the facilities, California Rep. Nanette Barragán told reporters that when she asked CBP officers what they would be doing with the funding from the border supplemental package, “I got a blank stare because they said, ‘You came at the wrong time, there’s nobody here, the influx is really low,’” she said. “So what we’re seeing come out of here is very different from what we’re seeing in the news right now.”
A throng of loud pro-Trump protesters heckled and booed at the Democrats during the press conference Monday and some called the lawmakers derogatory names.
“Keep yelling — this is very appropriate; Vile rhetoric for vile actions … racist words and venom for racist policies,” Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna S. Pressley said. “I’m tired of the humanity and the full freedom of black and brown children being negotiated and compromised and moderated.”
Several lawmakers also brought up a ProPublica investigation published Monday on a secret Facebook group of some 9,000-plus current and former Border Patrol agents, in which lewd images and physical violence against lawmakers and migrants were flippantly discussed.
Members of the group talked about throwing burritos at members of Congress, called Latina lawmakers derogatory names and joked about migrants deaths, according to ProPublica. The group also contained a sexually explicit cartoon of New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was part of Monday’s delegation to the border.
“It was a very heated conversation, when we brought up the article,” Barragán said in a Twitter video after visiting the first facility. “It was very heated; we asked about it.”
Ocasio-Cortez looked visibly upset as she left the El Paso facility and told reporters she was positive that abuses went on there, especially if “this was them on their best behavior.” On Twitter, she said officers laughed in front of the members of Congress.
“I brought it up to their superiors. They said, ‘Officers are under stress & act out sometimes,’” she tweeted. “No accountability.”
CBP called the ProPublica report “disturbing” and said it asked the Department of Homeland Security inspector general to investigate. “Any employees found to have violated our standards of conduct will be held accountable,” U.S. Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost said in a statement.
A DHS inspector general report from May called conditions at the Del Norte Processing Center in El Paso “dangerous,” with massive overcrowding. The facility, meant to hold a maximum 125 detainees, contained as many as 900 people, without adequate access to showers and clean clothes.
The Associated Press recently revealed horrifying conditions at another facility in Clint, Texas, which was holding about 250 migrant children at the time. There have been six known deaths of migrant children in U.S. custody since last fall.
While recent reports appear to show particularly egregious conditions, CBP facilities have been the target of lawsuits by immigrant rights organizations under the Obama administration as well.
In May, CBP reported encountering over 144,000 migrants at the border, a record high and nearly three times higher than reported in the same month last year.
On Friday, acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan said he expected a 25 percent decline in the overall numbers in June, but couldn’t say if the decline was seasonal as migration tends to ebb in the hottest months of the year, or if it was due to Mexico’s recent crackdown on migrants.