More than a dozen U.S. House members visited migrant detention centers in Texas on Monday after concerns arose about deplorable conditions at some facilities and a news report that Border Patrol agents made vile posts that threatened lawmakers in a secret Facebook group.
The trip, organized by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, was scheduled to include stops in El Paso and Clint. Conditions at the Border Patrol station in Clint prompted an outcry last month after lawyers who visited the facility described scenes of sick and dirty children without their parents and inconsolable toddlers in the care of other children.
After visiting the first facility, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., tweeted, “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.”
On Monday afternoon, U.S. Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost responded to a ProPublica report, published ahead of the visit, about a secret Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents in which the participants discussed throwing burritos at the members of Congress visiting facilities Monday, among other things.
The current and former agents also joked in profane language about the deaths of migrants and posted a vulgar illustration of Ocasio-Cortez engaged in a sexual act with a detained migrant, according to images of the postings obtained by ProPublica.
“These posts are completely inappropriate and contrary to the honor and integrity I see — and expect — from our agents day in and day out,” Provost said. “Any employees found to have violated our standards of conduct will be held accountable.”
Another statement from Customs and Border Protection said the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security had been informed of the Facebook posts and an investigation was initiated.
In a statement, House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., called the Facebook group “truly abhorrent and shameful.”
“The agents found to be responsible for these vile comments should no longer have the privilege of representing the United States of America in uniform,” he said. “It is clear these Federal law enforcement officials 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.”
The visit comes 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 President Donald 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 will 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 Southern border.
Ahead of the visits Monday, U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, blamed the Trump administration for overcrowding at the facilities and for its struggles to respond to a surge of families crossing the southern border.
“Because this administration is determined to jail and incarcerate and detain as many people as possible, that’s why we have this crisis,” Escobar said during a morning interview on CNN. “We have alternatives to detention. We have other programs that are effective that have proven to work but that this administration has chosen not to use.”
Escobar is leading the delegation, along with U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Ocasio-Cortez, who referred last month to migrant detention facilities as “concentration camps,” is also part of the delegation.
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,” Trump told The Hill.
Lawmakers visiting the facilities plan to hold a news conference later Monday afternoon.
As those lawmakers moved to focus attention on the border, at least one other Democratic House member who opposed efforts to improve the emergency legislation passed Thursday has faced criticism back home.
At a town hall meeting Saturday in Woodcliff Lake, N.J., U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., faced several angry attendees who demanded to know why he had undermined a bid to make more changes protecting migrants to the Senate-negotiated deal.
Gottheimer is co-chairman of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan centrist group that played a key role in forcing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to abandon a plan to amend the Senate bill Thursday in hopes of forcing further negotiations.
“The choice we faced was, do we take a bill from the Senate that had 84 senators on it … do we get that done and immediately get aid, monetary aid, to children at the border? Or do we go home with nothing?” Gottheimer told the crowd, according to a video recorded by activists. “I thought it was unconscionable — unconscionable — to go home with nothing.”