World / Social Issues

U.S. lawmaker describes 'horrifying' conditions at Texas migrant facility

Reuters

Migrants held at a border patrol station in Texas were being kept in “horrifying” conditions that included psychological abuse and being told to drink out of toilets, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said after a visit to the facility with other U.S. lawmakers on Monday.

A delegation of lawmakers from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus were touring the border patrol facilities following reports from a government watchdog that immigrants were being housed in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.

First-term Democratic Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter after leaving the main border patrol station in El Paso that she had seen women in cells with no water who had been told to drink out of toilets.

“After I forced myself into a cell w/ women&began speaking to them, one of them described their treatment at the hands of officers as “psychological warfare,” she wrote.

“This has been horrifying so far.”

Reuters could not independently confirm her account. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which oversees Border Patrol, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on her statements.

Conditions at U.S. facilities holding migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border have become a flash-point in recent weeks after an internal government watchdog warned of “dangerous overcrowding” at the El Paso facility in May. In June, immigration lawyers raised alarms over squalid conditions facing hundreds of children at another facility in Clint, Texas. The lawmakers visited both Texas facilities on Monday.

U.S. President Donald Trump has made cracking down on illegal immigration a centerpiece of his administration, but officials say a renewed crush of mostly Central Americans arriving at the border has strained resources.

The Border Patrol also came under fire on Monday following a report by the nonprofit news site ProPublica that said offensive content had been posted on a private Facebook group for current and former CBP officers. Posts included jokes about the deaths of migrants and sexually explicit comments referencing Ocasio-Cortez, a representative from New York, the news outlet reported.

After leaving the El Paso facility, Ocasio-Cortez wrote in a tweet, “I see why CBP officers were being so physically & sexually threatening towards me,” an apparent reference to the Facebook group.

CBP condemned the Facebook group and acknowledged that it may include a number of the agency’s employees.

Matthew Klein, assistant commissioner of CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility, called the social media activity “disturbing” and said it violated the agency’s code of conduct. Klein said the matter had been referred to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) inspector general, which has jurisdiction over the CBP.

According to a screen shot published by ProPublica, the Facebook group had 9,500 members.

“These posts are completely inappropriate and contrary to the honor and integrity I see — and expect — from our agents day in and day out. 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.

Border Patrol agents have expressed their own concerns about conditions at facilities, according to documents published Monday from the DHS Inspector General that supported the watchdog’s May report.

The documents revealed U.S. agents feared riots by migrants being held in overcrowded and unsanitary cells and were “embarrassed” and “frustrated” by the detainees’ conditions at El Paso.

The documents bit.ly/2XgmO5b were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request from website MuckRock and first reported by NBC News on Monday. They showed DHS inspectors had found on a May 7 visit www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-immigration-border/govern ment-watchdog-finds-dangerous-overcrowding-at-u-s-border-facilit y-idUSKCN1T12GI that more than half of the 756 immigrants being held at the El Paso facility were kept outside, and those inside were in cells packed at five times their capacity.

Border Patrol agents “remained armed in the holding areas because of their concerns with the overcrowding that potentially could result in volatile situations,” the documents revealed. Government inspectors saw migrants standing on toilets because there was not enough room in cells and other examples of unsanitary conditions leading to concerns about illness among the agents, the documents said.

CBP did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the documents. The U.S. government responded to the report in a letter to the watchdog included in the supporting documents. The situation “represents an acute and worsening crisis” and the surging numbers of migrants were overwhelming the agencies, the letter said.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said in a statement on Monday he would be traveling to El Salvador for a two-day visit to discuss “the root causes of irregular migration” and would meet with Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez in Honduras.

He traveled to Guatemala last week for meetings that included discussions of a “third safe country” agreement, which could potentially limit who could apply for asylum in the United States.