Representative Joseph Kennedy III called for stricter oversight of federal detention centers along the US border with Mexico on Monday after seeing some of the facilities first-hand during a tour with fellow lawmakers.
Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, described the detention centers as “a betrayal of our values” and said Congress must take a greater role in holding federal officials to account.
“In the United States, we have the opportunity, and I would argue, the responsibility, to do far better,” Kennedy said in a phone interview.
Kennedy was among a delegation of lawmakers who toured border facilities in El Paso and Clint, Texas, on Monday. The group was led by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and included Massachusetts representatives Ayanna Pressley and Lori Trahan, as well as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
In a visit to Border Patrol Station No. 1 in El Paso, Kennedy said he saw detainees kept in jail-like conditions. He was among the lawmakers who spoke to a group of 13 women from Cuba who had tried to enter the United States to seek asylum, but were detained by federal officials.
Those women began crying when they spoke, he said. They said they had been in detention for several days and had been deprived of access to medicine and showers, Kennedy said.
One woman with epilepsy said that when she was detained, a border official threw her medicine away, Kennedy said.
Their visit followed the approval of $4.6 billion in emergency aid for the US-Mexico border and came as ProPublica published a report describing a private Facebook group where current and former US Customs and Border Protection agents posted graphically violent, sexist, and racist images, including of Ocasio-Cortez and other members of Congress.
In one post, a member made a joke about Óscar Martínez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, whose bodies were photographed after they drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande into the United States.
The Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General is investigating the group, CBP said in a statement posted to Twitter.
Kennedy said the ProPublica report raises questions about the treatment of people being held in detention.
“If officials are going to do this hours or days before members of Congress come down for an in-person visit, what does that mean [for] a vulnerable refugee migrant [who] is trying to claim asylum at our border?” Kennedy said. “How are they going to be treated?”
Kennedy, who has called for the House of Representatives to begin impeachment proceedings against President Trump, said Trump “has, at every turn, tried to make this harder and more painful.”
The country must do more to provide for the basic needs of people who come to the US and provide them with legal assistance and other services, he said.
“Are we actually willing to do what is necessary to overhaul this system so that it is reflective of our values, our people, and the people who are seeking asylum?” he said. “That’s what we should be doing.”
Border Patrol officials told visiting lawmakers that detainees had access to food and medicine but were only allowed to take showers every few days, he said.
“It is not being operated as a way to care for individuals [who] are seeking asylum,” Kennedy said. “It is being treated as a law enforcement activity to arrest, detain, and then process people.”
Trahan said she was horrified at the treatment of children in detention.
“The children at these detention centers will have suffered significant harm and trauma after being in these facilities for months at a time,” Trahan wrote on Twitter.
At a news conference Monday, Pressley called for an immigration system that keeps families together.
“I learned a long time ago that when change happens, it’s either because people see the light, or they feel the fire,” Pressley said. “Today we are lifting up these stories in the hopes that you will see the light, and if you don’t, we will bring the fire.”
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org