A group of more than a dozen House Democrats toured border detention facilities in McAllen, Texas, on Saturday, recounting “inhumane” conditions including overcrowded cells, rampant disease, and asylum seekers who had not washed or brushed their teeth for weeks.
The delegation’s visit comes one day after Vice President Mike Pence became the highest-ranking member of the Trump administration to view detention facilities in the Rio Grande Valley, and the day before Immigration and Customs Enforcement is scheduled to conduct raids in nine major cities.
California Rep. Jackie Speier, who led the delegation, called it a “profound experience” to be there and tour the facilities. She praised the Border officers for “doing the best they can with what they have,” but, like Pence, called for congressional action.
“We intend to go home back to Washington, DC, and we’re going to develop a legislative package” as the first step “to address this humanitarian crisis,” she said, noting that members of Congress also need to travel to Northern Triangle countries and assess the resources available there.
Speier and Rep. Annie Kuster of New Hampshire, who was also on the trip, both described seeing about 40 men in cells meant to accommodate less than a dozen occupants at the first facility.
“They have not washed in 40 days, they have not brushed their teeth and those are circumstances that we can’t tolerate, because prisoners in our country get better healthcare than that,” Speier said, adding that “It’s inhumane — we’ve got to move these populations to other locations.”
Kuster said at the first facility they visited, adult male detainees “were jammed into cells so that they couldn’t even lay down” and Border agents told the lawmakers that detainees had been there for one to 60 days.
She said that some detainees had skin conditions, some had the flu, and some had been quarantined with meningitis, describing an “unsafe inhumane condition — and it needs relief.”
At a second facility, Kuster said, detainees were exhausted and primarily sleeping on mats on the cement floors with Mylar blankets.
“We were told that they had access to showers but when we talked to the individuals, teenage boys, they had had no showers, they had not been able to brush their teeth,” she said, echoing some of the conditions CNN witnessed Friday.
Kuster said the food brought in to detainees was primarily cold sandwiches and the lights were turned on at all hours, as CNN witnessed.
“The lights are on 24/7, so people are disoriented — they don’t know the difference between day or night,” she said, adding that detainees could not go outdoors or see the sky and describing the mood as “subdued, but primarily because they’re exhausted from their travel.”
Asked by CNN’s Pamela Brown whether Democrats take responsibility for the crisis, as Pence suggested Friday, Spier said, “My answer to that is this has got to be negotiated.”
“This is not something that is just going to be superimposed by the President of the United States,” she added. “We have values that we want to make sure are incorporated into the funding we provide.”
Pence saw the overcrowded conditions facing migrant adults and children in Customs and Border Protection custody firsthand Friday as he toured two facilities in Donna and McAllen, Texas, respectively.
“To be honest with you, I was not surprised by what we saw,” Pence told reporters Friday, citing the humanitarian crisis and congestion. “This crisis is real, the time for action is now.”