WASHINGTON – After touring a controversial migrant facility in Texas on Friday, a pair of Republican senators told USA TODAY they were stunned by the overcrowded conditions in which children were being held.
Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., said the Customs and Border Protection facility in Donna was “completely overwhelmed.”
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said he was “absolutely stunned” with the conditions he saw Friday morning.
“It’s breathtaking to be there because every one of those old plexiglass cells is literally packed,” Lankford said. “The entire floor is covered with kids, and then there’ll be sitting around the edge because there’s no floor space for them.”
Braun and Lankford were part of a group of more than a dozen Republican senators who visited the Rio Grande Valley as the Biden administration continues to come under fire by Republicans and Democrats alike for the influx of migrants at the southern border.
The Biden administration is struggling to grapple with the surge. Officials have said they will accept only children, and in some cases, they have begun accepting some families, saying Mexico will not take some families with small children.
During the visit to the border, a first for Braun, he and the other Republicans were briefed by officials, toured the facility in Donna and took a boat tour on the Rio Grande in Mission, Texas.
Braun told USA TODAY he was concerned for the hygiene of the children and how close the immigrants were to one another amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
He said Border Patrol agents told him children were arriving with “phone numbers on their hands, a piece of paper on their foreheads,” of family members already in the U.S.
The Indiana Republican said the senators were told not to take photos or videos of the facility, but “that didn’t work” and the visitors captured images of the conditions anyway.
Photos taken Friday and given to USA TODAY by Braun’s office Saturday show at least 10 children grouped together near a playpen, sleeping on mats. Another shows families, some with face masks, also on mats in a makeshift tent area. A TV in the corner plays a news channel.
The Biden administration released photos and two videos of the facilities in Donna and El Paso last week. Video of the Donna facility, which was filmed the week before it was released, showed children getting health screenings, lining up to receive food and lying on mats on the floor with foil blankets.
Lankford said “there’s so many of them, they can’t even lay down,” adding “it’s just crammed.” He said there are bathrooms and sinks there where they saw Border Patrol agents walking children “in and out, one after another.”
He said that in an outdoor area that has Astroturf, known as the “recreation area,” about 100 children were waiting to be transferred to a facility run by the Department of Health and Human Services. He said the children were being tested for the coronavirus before the transfer, and more than a dozen had tested positive.
“I thought, ‘OK, well, we’ve got kids testing positive for COVID that have been in that pod, that closely packed in,'” Lankford said.
The Oklahoma senator said he had visited the Donna facility in 2019, and he said children were separated by age groups in pods, as well as gender. While children are still separated by gender, Lankford noted that because of overcrowding, children who seemed to be about 11 years old were grouped with older teens. He also said, however, that very young children were separated from the older ones.
The Biden administration is turning away a majority of migrants under Title 42 – a policy implemented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under the Trump administration – that allows Customs and Border Protection to expel undocumented migrants to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in holding facilities. But unlike former President Donald Trump , Biden is now taking in children, saying it would be dangerous for them to make the journey on their own.
In a news conference Thursday, however, Biden indicated he would be willing to deport some unaccompanied children depending on their cases.
The Biden administration has conceded that the border facilities are not suitable for children. Officials from Health and Human Services and the Office of Refugee Resettlement are being sent to the facilities to help speed up the vetting of potential sponsors or family members of unaccompanied children.
In addition, HHS is working to open more influx facilities to move children out of Customs and Border Protection custody. A second HHS facility is being built in Carrizo Springs, Texas, where a temporary facility is already located. With the help of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, other sites will be opened, including ones at the Freeman Expo Center in San Antonio and at the San Diego Convention Center in San Diego.
Bruan told USA TODAY that during the boat tour on the Rio Grande, “there was a body floating” of someone who had drowned during the dangerous trip, and the senators heard “coyotes” – people who smuggle immigrants across the border – mocking Border Patrol agents.
Last week, Customs and Border Protection said in a statement that agents found a 9-year-old girl from Mexico who apparently drowned while trying to cross the Rio Grande into the U.S.
In a statement Thursday, the agency said it found the child on March 20 stranded and unconscious on an island on the Mexican side of the river. The agency said in the statement that “a mother from Guatemala and her 3-year-old child from Mexico” were also found with the 9-year-old girl. The mother and 3-year-old were initially unresponsive but regained consciousness.
Republicans have criticized Biden’s immigration policies amid the influx at the border, saying that reversing Trump-era policies led to the increase. Democrats have instead pointed the blame at the Trump administration, saying Trump’s policies were inhumane.
Braun said it was a mistake for people to “dismiss what Trump was doing, because that’s the only thing that’ll work to get the border secure.”
Several of Trump’s hard-line immigration policies were in place when Lankford visited the Donna facility in 2019. The Migrant Protection Protocols – also known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, which forced migrants to stay in Mexico while they waited for court hearings – also were in place at that time. Critics argued the border cities where migrants were forced to stay under those policies were often dangerous.
In addition, the Trump administration in 2019 had begun “metering” migrants at the border, a process that limited the number of people a day who could request asylum at a port of entry along the southern border.
Biden reversed the Migrant Protection Protocols and has since begun reprocessing people who had active asylum claims.
As of Friday, 12,551 unaccompanied children were in HHS custody and another 5,495 children in Customs and Border Protection custody, according to numbers released by HHS.
Lankford told USA TODAY that one solution to help with the backlog and to quickly move children out of the facilities would be to “actually process asylum claims while they are still in detention there.”
Lankford said that when it comes to adults claiming asylum, “we should keep them at the border, do the hearing. If they don’t qualify, then we should return them back to (their) country.”
“Obviously, this is not what’s being portrayed by the administration of what is being done for the kids at the border,” Lankford said.