MCALLEN, Texas - When Vice President Mike Pence visited a migrant detention center here Friday, he saw nearly 400 men crammed behind caged fences with not enough room for them all to lie down on the concrete ground. There were no mats or pillows for those who found the space to rest. A stench from body odor hung stale in the air.
When reporters toured the facility before Pence, the men screamed that they'd been held there 40 days, some longer. They said they were hungry and wanted to brush their teeth. It was sweltering hot, but the only water was outside the fences and they needed to ask permission from the Border Patrol agents to drink.
Pence toured two migrant holding facilities Friday with Republican senators in an effort to defend the administration’s handling of the migrant crisis following reports of inhumane conditions at the facilities.
The first center he visited, while not homey or comfortable, was only two months old, cleaner and allowed Pence to paint a rosier picture of the treatment of migrants held in federal custody. But it was much harder for Pence to deny what he'd seen at the second facility, and he instead described the conditions as the result of the migrant border crisis the administration has been warning about for months.
‘‘I was not surprised by what I saw,’’ Pence said later at a news conference. ‘‘I knew we'd see a system that was overwhelmed.’’
He added: ‘‘This is tough stuff.’’
The vice president’s office said it specifically instructed the Border Patrol agents not to clean up or sanitize the facility beyond what is routine so the American people could see the overcrowding and scarce resources, like lack of beds, and see how serious the crisis is at the border.
‘‘That’s the overcrowding President [Donald] Trump has been talking about. That’s the overwhelming of the system that some in Congress have said was a manufactured crisis,’’ Pence said during a news conference after visiting the second facility. ‘‘But now I think the American people can see this crisis is real.’’
Pence’s comments were at odds with recent statements from Republicans, as well as Trump, who have accused Democrats who have visited similar facilities of exaggerating the poor conditions. Trump earlier Friday called recent media reports and comments from Democrats about poor conditions ‘‘phony.’’
And earlier this month, the president downplayed concerns about how migrants are being treated at the facilities.
‘‘Many of these illegals aliens are living far better now than where they came from, and in far safer conditions,’’ Trump wrote in a July 3 tweet.
Pence said the rough conditions are why the administration recently requested and Congress approved $4.6 billion in aid for the border, and he accused Democrats of not supporting more funding for additional beds at facilities for migrants.
He also defended the job being done by the employees at the detention centers.
‘‘I was deeply moved to see the care that our Customs and Border Protection personnel are providing,’’ Pence said. ‘‘Coming here, to this station, where single adults are held, I've equally been inspired by the efforts of Customs and Protection doing a tough job in a difficult environment.’’
Pence’s visit was the latest move by both political parties to use border trips to highlight their case for who is at fault for the border crisis caused by a surge in Central American migrants and what should be done to remedy it.
Republicans have accused Democrats of failing to get on board with legal changes to the asylum system that would make the flow of migrants easier to handle, while Democrats have charged Trump’s policies and rhetoric are callous and making a bad situation worse.
The political fight over the border is likely to only intensify as both parties prepare for the 2020 presidential race, in which immigration will be a top issue.
Border officials sought to counter some of the men’s claims at the second facility Pence visited.
Michael Banks, the patrol agent in charge of the McAllen facility, said the men there are allowed to brush their teeth once a day and are given deodorant after showering. But he conceded that many of the men had not showered for 10 or 20 days because the facility previously didn’t have showers.
There were no cots for them to sleep on because there wasn’t room, Banks said. Instead, they are each given a Mylar blanket. He said they are also given three hot meals a day, along with juice and crackers.
After he toured the first facility, Pence described a much better situation than the one that has been relayed by Democrats and in news reports.
He said Trump wanted him there with media cameras to see for themselves how people were being treated.
‘‘Every family I spoke to said they were being well cared for, and that’s different than some of the harsh rhetoric we hear from Capitol Hill,’’ Pence said. ‘‘Customs and Border Protection is doing its level best to provide compassionate care in a manner the American people would expect.’’
Pence first toured the cavernous facility built in May to handle overcrowding, where 800 people are living. Most were lying on kindergarten-style napping mats on the floor, covered with thin, tinfoil blankets. In another room, children, all under 8 years old, were seated in front of a television watching an animated Spanish film.
Pence asked the children if they had food and were being taken care of. They all nodded, and some said ‘‘sí.’’ A few children shook their heads no when asked if they had a place to ‘‘get cleaned up.’’
As Pence toured the facilities, a House committee was having a contentious, partisan debate back in Washington over how migrants have been treated. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., requested to be sworn in when appearing as a witness before the panel to show she was telling the truth when she retold a story about a migrant woman who said she had to drink water from the toilet because her sink broke.
Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, accused her of playing to her millions of Twitter followers.
Some Democrats have described the detention centers as ‘‘concentration camps’’ and say the U.S. government is holding children in ‘‘cages.’’ Several children have died after crossing the border and being taken into federal custody.
Pence said it was heartbreaking to hear from children who had walked two or three months to come to America and cross the border illegally, but he ultimately blamed Congress for failing to pass legislation that would deal with the influx of migrants at the southern border.
Some of the men said they were hungry and had been held there for 40 days or longer.
‘‘Look, this is tough stuff,’’ Pence acknowledged at a later news conference.
‘‘I knew we'd see a system that is overcrowded,’’ he added. ‘‘It’s overwhelmed and that’s why Congress has to act.’’
Pence’s office said the tour was part of an effort to show the Trump administration is providing adequate care for migrants. But the scene the vice president witnessed is sure to spark new criticism of the conditions facing migrants in U.S. government facilities.
The caged migrants were being held in an area at the McAllen Border Patrol station. When detainees saw reporters arrive, many began shouting, saying they had been there for 40 days or more and they were hungry and wanted to brush their teeth. Agents guarding the cages were wearing face masks. The press pool covering the vice president was removed within 90 seconds.
The conditions were described by a pool reporter from The Washington Post, who said the fenced cages were so crowded that it was impossible for all the men to lie on the concrete.
The scene resembled what an inspector general found in a scathing report delivered last week based on trips to Border Patrol facilities near the Rio Grande, including the station Pence visited. The report quoted a senior government manager as calling the situation a ‘‘ticking time bomb.’’
Michael Banks, the agent in charge of the McAllen station Pence visited, said the men held there were allowed to brush their teeth once a day. He said they were given deodorant after showering, but conceded many of the men had not showered for 10 or 20 days. He also said the longest any man had been there was 32 days.
President Donald Trump said earlier Friday that he had dispatched Pence to the border to dispel reports of dire conditions at the migrant detention centers.
‘‘They’re crowded because we have a lot of people, but they’re in good shape,’’ Trump said. He complained about ‘‘phony’’ reporting on conditions by The New York Times.
Earlier in his tour, Pence visited another detention facility with a series of large white tents where most of the detainees were lying on kindergarten-like mats with thin, tinfoil-like blankets. Many of the families there were to be released within 72 hours. Pence told reporters every family he spoke to there said they were being well cared for.
‘‘And while we hear some Democrats in Washington, D.C., referring to U.S. Customs and Border facilities as ‘concentration camps,’ what we saw today was a facility that is providing care that every American would be proud of,’’ Pence said.
After visiting the second site, Pence had a more sober assessment. He stressed that he had called for more Department of Homeland Security spending because of the overcrowded situation, including a $4.6 billion humanitarian aid package that Congress passed recently.
The Trump administration has also been under fire over conditions inside a Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas, where children were found in filthy conditions and keeping watch over younger kids amid the overcrowding. Five immigrant children have died since late last year after being detained by the government.
Central American families fleeing violence, poverty and drought have been coming to the U.S. in record numbers this year, peaking in May, when the Border Patrol made nearly 133,000 apprehensions. Facilities to detain adults and children quickly filled up, forcing many migrants to languish in unsuitable Border Patrol facilities much longer than the 72 hours normally required by law.