Trump’s Policies Exacerbated the Border Crisis — I Know Because I Saw It.
After recent reports of utterly deplorable conditions at migrant detention facilities on our southern border, I decided to see the conditions for myself. On Saturday, July 13, eighteen colleagues and I spent the day at the border in Brownsville and McAllen, Texas conducting oversight. We visited processing centers and detention facilities, respite centers, a port of entry, and traveled into Mexico to meet with migrants stranded there.
The visit reinforced that we are not only facing a humanitarian crisis driven by an influx of migrants fleeing violence and poverty from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, but we also are facing a moral crisis and a collapse of policy.
This week in Congress, we will be voting on legislation to set standards for migrants being held at the border. I also will be attending two hearings — one with Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) and the other with the Acting Secretary of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). My recent visit will inform my questions at these hearings and my votes.
I’d like to share my reflections from this visit, including the appalling conditions migrants are experiencing in these facilities and the policies exacerbating this crisis. Here is what I saw:
McAllen Border Patrol Station and Central Processing Center (McAllen, Texas)
Our first stop was the McAllen Border Patrol Station and Centralized Processing Center, run by Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Border Patrol stations like the one we visited are meant to be short-term holding facilities, handling the initial processing of migrants before they are transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or, in the case of unaccompanied children, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
At the McAllen Border Patrol Station, agents briefed us on the growing humanitarian crisis, driven by waves of Central American families and migrants apprehended between the ports of entry in the Rio Grande Valley Sector.
This influx of migrants combined with Trump administration policies have led to unacceptable conditions that run counter to CBP’s own standards. Migrants indicated that they spent weeks at the holding facility in conditions of squalor, even though CBP standards state “detainees should generally not be held for longer than 72 hours in CBP holding facilities”. We saw extreme overcrowding, with multiple holding cells meant for 4–6 people filled with nearly 40 people, leaving no space for anyone to lie down or even sit on the concrete floor. Lights are kept on 24 hours a day, making it difficult to sleep. There was no access to showers in the McAllen facility — the smell was overwhelming. Migrants gave us phone numbers, desperate for us to reach their family members and communicate their location.
Since the holding cells were overwhelmed, hundreds more migrants were packed into a large concrete space that looked like a loading dock. Men were leaning against the walls and chain-linked fences, while others had completely covered the floor’s surface and were sleeping under Mylar blankets.
Ursula Central Processing Center (McAllen, Texas)
Next, we visited CBP’s “Ursula” Centralized Processing Center, the largest CBP detention facility, which holds migrant families, women, and unaccompanied children in its 77,000 square feet.
Before we entered, we were advised to wear masks because the facility has been plagued by several outbreaks of infectious diseases, including meningitis, lice, scabies, typhus, and the flu. These masks are offered to everyone who comes to the facility, including the migrants.
The first half of the facility is 22,000 square feet, where migrants are packed together in smaller chain-linked areas while awaiting initial intake, processing, and medical screening. After that, migrants are then moved to a larger room measuring about 55,000 square feet and divided by large, chained-linked fences called “pods.” These pods contained water, Mylar blankets, and sleeping mats. While there was some access to showers, bathrooms, laundry services, and toothbrushes, migrants must ask border patrol agents for permission to leave their cells and be escorted to these facilities. One young girl said that “she got a shower yesterday when she heard that we were coming to visit.” Similar to the McAllen facility, the lights are on 24–7 and there are no clocks in the facility — leaving no way to determine the time of day.
The increase in young children and families has left Border Patrol unprepared to care for infants and tender age children. Although, the center utilizes contracting services to care for young children from 7:00 am to 7:00 pm, border patrol agents are required to watch the children at night. The border patrol agents are not trained to provide health care services or social support, but the Trump administration has given them no other option. We met with members of the United States National Guard and the Coast Guard who have been deployed from their own missions to our southwest border to assist Border Patrol.
Through a translator, I spoke to a father who was lying on a “quarantine” mat with his six-month-old daughter. She was clearly ill — her eyes were glassy and unfocused, she was pale, and she was very quiet. There are 8 medical staff and EMTs stationed in the building, but Border Patrol still spends much of their time transporting sick individuals to local health care facilities, or to Weslaco, their “isolation” border facility.
Many children were fast asleep, exhausted from their journey, but the others were quiet and staring at us. A few were crying from illness or hunger. Some were separated from their parents and siblings within the facility, and many did not know where they were going next.
Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center (McAllen, Texas)
We then visited the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center, which is often the first point of contact for migrants after release from detention facilities. Sister Norma welcomed us and told us about the facility that had been in operation for five years. The center provides a legal services orientation, food, shower, hygiene products, a change of clothes, medical assistance, and information about transportation to the migrant’s next destination, all in Spanish.
Here, we heard terrifying stories of migrants fleeing violence and drug cartels in their home countries. I spoke with a woman from Honduras who had operated a fruit stand, but had to pay an increasing amount of rent to the cartels. When she could not pay anymore, they burned down her stand and threatened her life, causing her to flee to the United States with her two young children for safety. Most of those we met had similar stories — and would be summarily rejected for asylum under the rules the Trump administration is attempting to impose.
Brownsville Port of Entry (Brownsville, Texas)
We then drove to visit the Brownsville Port of Entry and spoke with customs officers of the Field Operations division. At this port of entry, five holding cells can fit a combined total of 20 people at once, but they are required to give suspected criminals holding cells to themselves. This means that oftentimes they are detaining well under 20 migrants, slowing the processing of the thousands waiting to a crawl. It appeared to me that this “slow-walking” was likely not only a function of outdated facilities, but also a deliberate policy.
Under the Trump administration, CBP officers have instituted a policy of “metering,” or preventing people from coming onto United States soil until there is room for them in the facility. There is no CBP waiting list or official process that allows migrants to wait in line — it is run by someone different at every Mexican border town: coyotes, NGOs, and in some instances the local governments.
Because of the Trump administration’s metering policy, thousands of migrants are waiting for months to have their turn to present themselves at the port of entry, resulting in swelling numbers of migrants in dangerous Mexican border towns.
Gateway International Bridge (Brownsville, Texas and Matamoros, Mexico)
To see the impact of the Trump administration’s metering policy, we crossed the Gateway International Bridge into Mexico. Pinned to the windows of a Mexican building was a list of at least 2,000 names waiting to make their asylum case to this particular port of entry.
In Matamoros, Mexico, we spoke with migrants waiting in the 102-degree heat. Some had been waiting for three or four months for their names to be called, and they knew that once they turned themselves in, they would have to spend time in a CBP holding facility. They told us about fellow migrants who had gotten tired of waiting in unsafe conditions and had decided to cross the border between the ports of entry and turn themselves in to border patrol. They mentioned that no one’s number had been called to enter into the United States in several days.
Good Neighbor Settlement House (Brownsville, Texas)
Finally, we visited the Good Neighbor Settlement House, a respite center located in Brownsville. Their work is similar to Catholic Charities — providing medical and legal services to migrants, as well as a place to sleep and eat before their journey to their final destination in the United States. Here, I met with a father and son from Honduras that were seeking to reunite with their family located in North Carolina.
Almost exactly one year ago, I traveled to Laredo, Texas to see similar facilities. Here too I was alarmed particularly by the conditions at the processing center. But, after my most recent trip, I can tell you the humanitarian crisis has worsened by several orders of magnitude.
As the former Chairman and current member of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, I am committed to ensuring a safe, orderly, and fair system for asylum seekers, while ensuring proper humanitarian conditions for any children and migrants held by the United States government. I led the effort in the Appropriations Committee to prevent federal funds from being used to implement some of the Trump administration’s cruelest policies such as the so-called “Remain in Mexico” policy and the asylum ban that would render those at our southern border fleeing violence ineligible; the “Public Charge” rule that forces immigrant families to forgo critical health and nutrition assistance; and the rolling back of asylum protections for those presenting themselves between ports of entry.
Our immigration system is being challenged, and so is our humanity. Ultimately, Congress needs to enact comprehensive immigration reform legislation that meets the needs of our economy, updates our legal immigration processes, provides a fair and orderly process for asylum seekers, and creates a pathway to citizenship for individuals who are already part of the fabric of our communities. We also must address the home-country conditions that drive migration in Central America — for which Trump has vindictively and foolishly cut off aid. And, we must resist and rein in the Trump administration’s most egregious anti-immigrant policies. I will continue working toward these ends with my colleagues, and I encourage you to keep in touch on these or any other issues of concern.