House members detail grim findings after visiting migrant detention centers in Texas
EL PASO, Texas — Lawmakers described how migrant women were being held in a cell with no running water and told by US Customs and Border Protection officers to drink out of toilet at a Texas detention center amid widespread concerns about deplorable conditions.
More than a dozen House members, including three from Massachusetts, visited facilities in El Paso and Clint, Texas — a trip that came on the same day as a news report that Border Patrol agents made vile posts in a secret Facebook group.
Some of the posts discussed throwing burritos at the visiting lawmakers, while others joked in profane language about the deaths of migrants and included a vulgar illustration of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., being forced to engage in a sexual act by President Donald Trump, according to images of the posts obtained by ProPublica.
Before they toured two Border Patrol stations Monday, several members asked their hosts in a private briefing whether they would be safe inside, said Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif.
The airing of the private attacks, Aguilar said, made it even more difficult for congressional overseers to trust the Border Patrol as the federal government works to address the surge of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.
‘‘It’s very tough to back them up when their active and retired members are part of this Facebook page,’’ he said in an interview. ‘‘Even if it’s a very small percentage, it’s unfortunate they harbor some very dark imagery and very dark thoughts about migrants and members of Congress.’’
Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost, who responded to the ProPublica report, described the online group as ‘‘completely inappropriate and contrary to the honor and integrity I see - and expect - from our agents day in and day out"; she vowed to hold accountable any employee found to have violated the agency’s rules of conduct.
A separate statement from Customs and Border Protection, the patrol’s parent agency, said the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security would conduct an independent investigation.
The Washington Post was not able to confirm the existence of the group, called ‘‘I'm 10-15,’’ after the law enforcement code for ‘‘aliens in custody,’’ as the group is not visible to people who aren’t members.
The lawmakers visited Border Patrol stations in El Paso and Clint, Texas, as well as a facility in El Paso for children operated by the Department of Health and Human Services. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus organized the trip after conditions at the Clint facility prompted an outcry last month, with lawyers who visited describing scenes of hundreds of sick and dirty children without their parents and inconsolable toddlers in the care of other children.
During Monday’s visit to Clint, lawmakers saw about two dozen migrant children being held there, down from about 700 in May, Aguilar said. Members expressed more pointed concerns about the El Paso facility, where they said several hundred people are still detained.
They described a visit with a group of more than a dozen Cuban women housed in a crowded cell without running water who reported going weeks without showers.
"If you want water, just drink from a toilet." That's what border patrol told one thirsty woman we met on today's #DemsAtTheBorder trip. These are the same CBP personnel who threatened to throw burritos at members of Congress. Changes must be made. #DontLookAway pic.twitter.com/dW34DRduDA— Judy Chu (@RepJudyChu) July 1, 2019
Ocasio-Cortez said one woman said she was told by Border Patrol officers to drink out of a toilet. ‘‘And that was them knowing that a congressional visit was coming,’’ the visibly angry lawmaker said in an interview. ‘‘This is CBP on their best behavior, telling people to drink out of the toilet.’’
Just left the 1st CBP facility.— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) July 1, 2019
I see why CBP officers were being so physically &sexually threatening towards me.
Officers were keeping women in cells w/ no water & had told them to drink out of the toilets.
This was them on their GOOD behavior in front of members of Congress.
Now I’ve seen the inside of these facilities.— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) July 1, 2019
It’s not just the kids. It’s everyone. People drinking out of toilets, officers laughing in front of members Congress.
I brought it up to their superiors. They said “officers are under stress & act out sometimes.” No accountability.
Now I’m on my way to Clint, where the Trump admin was denying children toothpaste and soap.— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) July 1, 2019
This has been horrifying so far. It is hard to understate the enormity of the problem. We’re talking systemic cruelty w/ a dehumanizing culture that treats them like animals.
Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., another member of the delegation, echoed Ocasio-Cortez’s description in an account posted to Twitter and said the conditions at the facility were ‘‘appalling and disgusting.’’ Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Pa., called them indicative of a ‘‘human rights crisis.’’
Just left the first CBP facility. The conditions are far worse than we ever could have imagined.— Congresswoman Madeleine Dean (@RepDean) July 1, 2019
15 women in their 50s- 60s sleeping in a small concrete cell, no running water. Weeks without showers. All of them separated from their families.
This is a human rights crisis.
A Department of Homeland Security official, who was not authorized to discuss the visit and spoke on the condition of anonymity, insisted that no Border Patrol agent would make a migrant in their custody drink from a toilet and said there was water available.
Three Massachusetts House members, including Joe Kennedy III, Ayanna Pressley, and Lori Trahan, were among the delegation, and slammed the conditions of the migrant centers on Monday afternoon.
Kennedy documented his experience on Twitter, saying that Customs and Border Protection officials were “uncooperative,” and described the facility as having the atmosphere of a jail.
Spent the morning in TX at Clint and El Paso detention facilities. Big takeaways -- 1) @CBP was very resistant to Congressional oversight. They tried to restrict what we saw, take our phones, block photos and video. Atmosphere was contentious and uncooperative.— Rep. Joe Kennedy III (@RepJoeKennedy) July 1, 2019
2) Facilities are wholly inadequate. Cells maxed to capacity, concrete floors...It felt jail-like. No way to keep a child or innocent human being. Group of 13 women from Cuba were in tears when we spoke with them.— Rep. Joe Kennedy III (@RepJoeKennedy) July 1, 2019
3) The entire system is broken, rotten and rife with abuse. And Trump doubles down on it despite the growing horror -- child detention, metering, Remain in Mexico, threatened ICE raids. Every action he takes exacerbates and entrenches the humanitarian crisis at our nation's feet.— Rep. Joe Kennedy III (@RepJoeKennedy) July 1, 2019
Our oversight is not deterred. Congress won't let up.— Rep. Joe Kennedy III (@RepJoeKennedy) July 1, 2019
Trahan tweeted about how she saw women “sobbing in a crowded cell because they were separated from their kids.”
Toddlers quarantined in a 8x10’ room sleeping on the floor w/the flu.— Congresswoman Lori Trahan (@RepLoriTrahan) July 1, 2019
Young girl in a hot warehouse coloring with a chain link fence around her.
Women sobbing in a crowded cell because they were separated from their kids.
Our system is broken. I won’t stop until it’s fixed.
Pressley, who had to raise her voice to be heard over the shouts of protesters, said women “wept openly in our arms. . . because of the trauma they are experiencing.”
Pressley also said that she had asked her constituents what message they wanted to deliver in Texas. “They asked me to deliver a message that you are welcome here, and that we love you, and we will never stop fighting for your dignity and your humanity,” she said.
Aguilar and others said the revelations surrounding the Facebook group - which came to light during the morning visit to the Department of Health and Human Services facility - colored the visits later in the day to the Border Patrol sites.
‘‘It shocks the conscience that these agents are entrusted with the lives of anybody in their custody, much less vulnerable people,’’ said Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, the caucus’s chairman. ‘‘And the vulgar xenophobia and sexism is clearly pervasive.’’
Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat who represents the El Paso area, wondered to reporters how many current Border Patrol members and supervisors belonged to the group and tolerated the rhetoric on display there: ‘‘Anyone who views vulnerable human lives in this way should have absolutely no access to a badge or a gun,’’ she said.
Castro told reporters in Clint that lawmakers will investigate the Facebook posts.
House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., who did not participate in Monday’s border visits, said in a statement that the Facebook group is ‘‘truly abhorrent and shameful’’ and that those who participated in the attacks ‘‘seem empowered by President Trump and seem all too willing to take his anti-immigrant rhetoric to the next level when they think no one is watching.’’
As the furor over the posts mounted, Trump supporters gathered outside the Clint detention center while the Democrats were inside. At a news conference afterward, the lawmakers struggled to be heard as protesters shouted them down.
‘‘Build a wall; deport ‘em all,’’ one shouted. ‘‘That’s the way we get rid of this problem!’’
When Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., one of three Muslim members of Congress, stood at the event, a protester shouted: ‘‘We care about Jesus Christ. We don’t care about Sharia law.’’
‘‘I will outlove your hate,’’ Tlaib replied, choked with emotion. ‘‘You can all scream at me. I will never stop speaking truth to power.’’
The visit came just days after a bitterly divided House approved $4.6 billion in emergency aid for the border. Liberal Democrats, many of whom made the trip to Texas, wanted strict limits on how Trump could spend the money.
Other Democrats were intent on getting the money to the administration as quickly as possible, agreeing to a measure that would pump billions of dollars into the budgets of agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services, that have been overwhelmed by the influx of Central American migrants at the border.
In an interview last week, Trump defended conditions at migrant detention facilities during his tenure. ‘‘No, the conditions are much better than they were under President Obama,’’ he told the Hill newspaper.
Jaclyn Reiss of the Globe staff contributed to this report.