When U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) entered a detention center in Texas for migrants, she saw the anxiety on their faces.
“Their eyes were glassy,” Tlaib told the Free Press about her visit last week to two Border Patrol centers in El Paso and nearby Clint. “They were exhausted, tired, scared. They’ve been through a long journey and you can tell … that they’re afraid.”
Tlaib said she recalled meeting a grandmother in detention who said she was separated from her grandson for 40 days and in need of medication; a 30-year-old pregnant woman named Bettys who said she hasn’t been able to see a doctor while detained for 27 days; and a father who broke down crying as he worried about the fate of his family with him.
“He said he’s been there for four days,” Tlaib said of the father in the El Paso Border Patrol Station. “He hasn’t showered, he hasn’t eaten anything but potato chips. He was very worried, he kept putting his hand up to say like, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen.’ … He got very teary eyed as he was gripping his children, and his wife was next to him.”
Tlaib was one of 14 members of Congress led by leaders with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus who visited the Border Patrol centers near the border with Mexico last Monday. In a separate trip the following day, another Michigan Congresswoman, U.S. House Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield) joined several Reps. in visiting a migrant detention center in Florida.
On Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General released a report warning of what it called “dangerous overcrowding and prolonged detention of children and adults in” migrant centers in Texas.
The Congressional visits drew controversy as some conservatives blasted the delegations.
When Tlaib spoke at a press conference with other Congressmen after visiting the centers, she was heckled by Trump supporters shouting at her with bigoted remarks about Tlaib’s Muslim faith and Arab ethnicity.
On a video posted by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, you can hear a man yell at Tlaib: “We don’t want sharia law here. We don’t care about sharia law. We care about Jesus Christ. … Go take care of your country.”
Someone shouted that Tlaib should try eating pork, which observant Muslims don’t eat, Tlaib said.
Tlaib replied to the hecklers: “I will outlove your hate. I will always put my country first. … I will never stop speaking truth to power.”
Tlaib told the Free Press she feels “saddened and hurt that people could be so openly hateful” but added that her focus for the trip was on helping the migrants in detention.
“We got to go into facilities that many Americans will never be able to go in, and we came out even more horrified, more eager to fix this issue,” Tlaib said. “The Trump Administration has taken on a very horrific approach to immigration and immigrants.”
“We have asylum laws,” Tlaib said. “We have human rights laws, and processes that we’re supposed to be following. Immigrants in detention ‘cannot be denied medical care,’ ” she said.
Trump: Detention sites are ‘run beautifully’
In response to criticism of how migrants are being treated in the border facilities, Trump told reporters Friday: “I’ve seen some of those places and they are run beautifully. They’re clean. They are good. They do a great job. … Many of them, not all of them, they’re incredible, they’re really well run.”
Trump also tweeted last week: “If Illegal Immigrants are unhappy with the conditions in the quickly built or refitted detentions centers, just tell them not to come. All problems solved!”
In a statement to the Free Press, a spokesperson for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which oversees the centers toured by Tlaib and others, said: “This visit offered an open, frank and transparent discussion regarding our facilities and the challenges we face regarding the continuing humanitarian and border security crisis.”
“They asked questions and heard directly from El Paso Sector leadership on how U.S. Border Patrol is managing the more than 650 percent increase in apprehensions in the sector,” said the Border Patrol spokesperson. “Representatives visited two locations (El Paso Station and Clint Station), where migrants in custody receive three meals a day and have access to clean drinking water.”
“Local leadership highlighted investments in additional restroom and shower facilities, hygiene products, increased medical support and expanded transportation capabilities,” Border Patrol said in its statement. “Even with these investments, El Paso officials emphasized to members of Congress that USBP (U.S. Border Patrol) facilities were not designed for long-term holding.”
“Officials also explained the critical challenges to USBP operations when” other federal agencies such as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement “are unable to move those in custody as quickly as they are processed,” said the statement from Border Patrol.
The visit came on the same day of the release of a report by Pro Publica that alleged that some Border Patrol agents made derogatory remarks against migrants in a private Facebook forum.
During the visit, there were some tensions between some of the members of Congress, such as U.S. House Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), and some agents. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez had claimed that one agent tried to take a selfie of himself with her in the photo, Tlaib said.
A Border Patrol spokesperson said “CBP takes allegations of mistreatment of individuals in our facilities seriously, and reports all allegations to both the DHS (Department of Homeland Security) Office of the Inspector General and the CBP Office of Professional Responsibility. Any employee found to have violated our standards of conduct will be held accountable.”
Migrants treated ‘not as human beings’
Tlaib said her visit to the El Paso station “was overwhelming.”
She said they went into a “very small cell-like room with women…about 14 on the floor and a couple of on these long benches on the side.”
Tlaib said she recalled seeing in that cell “a little girl slumping over a sleeping body.”
Toiletries were limited and there was little privacy for the detainees, she said.
The Detroit Congresswoman said the migrants were “being treated like cattle, not as human beings, as mothers and fathers that are just looking for a better life for their children.”
Tlaib said that when she reached out to comfort them, they would get emotional and shed tears.
“What took me aback was the dehumanization, because as soon as we touch them, they’ll break down. As soon as I touched the grandmother, she just smiled and we just held each other’s hand. The woman who’s pregnant, I put my hand on her shoulder and kind of gripped it and said, ‘We’re here to help, we’re here to learn.'”
Tlaib said she saw little kids, ranging in ages four to 13, with older kids in some cases having to care for the younger kids. In the Clint center, there was “a glass door I tried to communicate to some of the children there,” she said. “They wouldn’t let us talk to them directly.”
Rep. Lawrence, who visited a center on Tuesday in Florida, also expressed concerns about conditions.
“I am simply appalled at the photos that are coming out of these detention centers that are holding migrant children,” Lawrence said. “The images of overcrowding, unhygienic and unsafe conditions these kids are forced to endure are simply deplorable.”
Tlaib said she spoke with Bettys, who is pregnant with her first child, asking about family members in the U.S. After finding out she has a family member in Florida, Tlaib got her phone number and said she told Bettys: “I can talk to her for you. I’m going to make sure you get a doctor. I’m going to try and help you.”
Speaking with Border Patrol agents
Tlaib said she also spoke with Border Patrol agents even though she was told not to by detention center officials because she wants to understand their challenges and sympathizes with their struggles at work.
She said one agent she spoke with said he was from the New York border area and was sent to Texas border area about a week ago.
Tlaib said she told the border agent from New York: “Look, you grew up in the northern border so it must be so different here. He goes, ‘Yes it is very much.’ And I said, ‘Have you been trained?’ And he didn’t say anything.”
“That’s the worry,” Tlaib said. “You’re going to send” agents to the southern border, “you’re going to send money, all this stuff. But there’s no processing standards.”
Tlaib said another agent told her: “We don’t have the manpower nor the resources to handle this. We weren’t trained to be social workers. We weren’t trained to be medical workers, the folks that do medical care. We were here to secure the border.”
The incident with the agent allegedly trying to take a photo with Ocasio-Cortez upset the delegation, Tlaib said.
“We were told we couldn’t use our phones” inside the centers, Tlaib said.
But the agent tried to take a photo in front of his superiors, she said.
“They were not afraid to do something so unprofessional, completely out of protocol … by the end, their tensions were really high” between the Congressmen and the agents, she said.
During the trip, Ocasio-Cortez also had accused Border Patrol agents of telling the migrants to drink from the toilet since there wasn’t any running water from faucets, a claim Trump supporters said wasn’t true. A Border Patrol official told Fox News: “We don’t treat people that way. We provide fresh water.”
‘Not going to look away’
Tlaib said the trip has made her “more determined to reverse the separation policy” of removing children from their parents in certain cases and sending them to foster care centers. The Trump administration maintains it ended the separation policy last year in June, but reports say that 700 more have been separated since then because of loopholes, such as if the parents have a criminal background.
Tlaib was one of the four House Democrats who voted against a bill signed by Trump last week that was supported by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to spend $4.6 billion in additional funding at the border for the increased flow of asylum seekers.
Tlaib said that more money is not the solution because it can still lead to child separations and mistreatment of the detainees. Two other Democrats who joined Tlaib in voting against the bill, Ocasio-Cortez and U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), were part of the delegation visiting the two centers.
“The whole point of the trip was the importance of not looking away,” Tlaib said. “A lot of people wanted to throw money and then look away. No, we’re not going to look away. We’re not going to continue the abuse of children and the abuse of mothers and grandmothers. … When you look away, you’re normalizing it. We really, really wanted to push back against this because it’s not normal. What we’re doing to children is not normal.”
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