WASHINGTON – Two events today more than 1,700 miles apart will put on display the deep divisions over the worsening migrant crisis at the southern U.S. border.
Battling to shape public perceptions of the worsening migrant crisis at the southern U.S. border, Vice President Mike Pence and a group of Republican senators will head to the border to tour a migrant detention center while Democrats host a high-profile hearing about the centers featuring testimony from government watchdog officials and some of their most outspoken members, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The dueling events will put all eyes — and TV cameras – on conditions at the facilities, which have drawn intense scrutiny due to reports chronicling severe overcrowding and inadequate care for migrant families. All of this comes against the backdrop of the deaths of at least six migrant children who have died in federal custody and nationwide raids expected this weekend by Immigration and Customs Enforcement that would leave even more undocumented migrants in federal custody.
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Pence, senators tour detention center
Democrats have expressed outrage over what they say is inhumane treatment of migrant families.
But Pence and Republican senators want to push back on those criticisms. They contend that the border facilities have become overwhelmed because Democrats have refused to work with them on policies that would stem the flow of migrants across the border. Pence has criticized lawmakers such as Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who have compared the detention facilities to concentration camps.
“It is really contemptible that some in Congress have referred to U.S. detention facilities as concentration camps,” Pence told reporters Wednesday during a trip to California. “That’s an outrage. The Nazis killed people. Our Customs and Border Protection personnel save lives every day.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., said he visited a detention facility in McAllen, Texas — the same Pence will tour with a handful of senators today, and said that the crisis along the border “was worse than I’ve ever seen it,” noting that the packed cells he saw were built for 300 people but housing about 1,100.
“The crisis has gotten materially worse in significant part because congressional Democrats keep galloping to the left on immigration so that as a policy matter, they essentially support open borders,” Cruz said. “Until we close the loopholes, a lot more children will be victimized.”
While Cruz highlighted the worsening conditions in such centers, Pence vowed to bring along TV cameras as he toured the facility in McAllen, Texas and said Thursday the aim of the visit with Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee was to show people a facility and level of care that would “make the American people proud.”
“What people are going to see is not the situation many Democrats have described but actually a situation where our CBP agents are providing humanitarian care, health care, shelter, food, sustenance in a way that would make the American people proud,” Pence said Thursday.
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Pence noted Wednesday that the detention centers are “overwhelmed” because “our system was simply never designed to deal with this” and said, “we’re going to lean into this crisis.”
Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., agreed and criticized planned House testimony from Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, a freshmen Democrat from New York who has become a progressive star on social media.
“Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez’s opinion counts, just not to me. She can’t be objective on this issue,” he said. “I think her mind is made up and I don’t think any amount of testimony would change her mind. I don’t think she understands the problem and I question her judgment. I think she’s more famous than wise.”
Democrats highlight Ocasio-Cortez in hearing about migrant centers
While Republicans are touring, Democrats on the House Oversight and Reform Committee will put the spotlight on the Trump administration and discuss the treatment of migrants.
Despite Republican attacks on Ocasio-Cortez, House Democrats will make her one of the stars of Friday’s hearing on the conditions of the centers.
She, along with Reps. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., and Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, will testify before the committee about their visit to the border earlier this month, where they toured a detention facility in Clint, Texas and met with families who said they had been separated. The congresswomen bashed the facility after the tour, telling a large swath of reporters that the conditions of the center were horrid.
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Ocasio-Cortez called it “unconscionable,” saying, “no woman should ever be locked up in a pen when they have done no harm to another human being.”
The Border Patrol facility in Clint made headlines after a group of lawyers who had spent time there went public with their findings, detailing children sleeping on floors and being held without access to medical care, clean water or toothbrushes. It has become the epicenter of the migrant crisis in large part because assessing conditions border facilities is difficult due to limited access to sites.
The congressional committee will hear from activists and the Department of Homeland Security’s acting Inspector General, Jennifer Costello, who issued the scathing watchdog reports chronicling unsafe conditions inside detention facilities.
“The American people are deeply concerned about the inhumane detention centers at the border and the number of children separated from their families,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, the chairman of the committee. “We look forward to hearing about the steps necessary to correct this crisis manufactured by the Trump Administration.”
Later this month, the committee will hear testimony from Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan about the centers and the separation of families.
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Friday’s hearing follows an inspector general’s report released by Costello this month that described the conditions at detention facilities in the Rio Grande Valley as “a ticking time bomb.” The report included photos showing migrants crowded behind chain-link fences, huddling under blankets on the floor and some holding up their hands and signs.
Contributing: Maureen Groppe and Alan Gomez