WASHINGTON — Angered by the conditions at migrant detention centers, an influential group of Democrats is pressing House leaders to move quickly to address the ongoing humanitarian crisis at the border.
Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, on Wednesday called for Congress to pass a bill this month addressing next year's spending by the Department of Homeland Security, frustrated that the $4.6 billion emergency legislation that a divided House backed last week failed to include explicit standards for the care of migrants in federal custody.
“We need to leverage our power in the House of Representatives,” Castro said in an interview with The Washington Post. Any new border legislation, he said, needs to “move people out of the system faster, lift the standards of care and, for the long term, invest in Central America so that you have less people desperate enough to try to make the journey.”
Castro joined more than a dozen lawmakers at tours of three facilities this week in the El Paso area, including the Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas, that was the subject of recent reports of severe overcrowding and deprivation for migrant children held there last month.
The lawmakers found conditions to be less crowded this week, but they said they remained concerned about Border Patrol facilities, which are not equipped for the long-term detention of migrants, and the Trump administration's broader ability to move migrants into more humane settings. Castro shared photos from inside an El Paso Border Patrol station, where lawmakers described facilities with no running water and other harsh conditions.
The crisis poses an ongoing challenge for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other House leaders as they try to mount an effective response. The emergency bill Congress passed last week provides resources through Sept. 30, but Castro and others want leaders to get moving as soon as possible on border funding for the subsequent fiscal year.
In a tweet Wednesday, Trump defended the Border Patrol, blamed Democrats and said the detention centers offer an improved existence for migrants.
"Our Border Patrol people are not hospital workers, doctors or nurses. The Democrats bad Immigration Laws, which could be easily fixed, are the problem. Great job by Border Patrol, above and beyond. Many of these illegals aliens are living far better now than where they came from, and in far safer conditions," Trump wrote.
Two reports from the DHS's internal watchdog released this week described nightmarish conditions inside Border Patrol holding cells, which have intensified Democrats' outrage and calls for new investigations.
The reports describe "serious overcrowding" that risked violations of detention standards, including adults "held in standing room only conditions for a week," and another location where detainees languished for a month in jam-packed cells.
One border official told inspectors that the situation amounted to a "ticking time bomb" and that agents feared an uprising by detainees. "At some facilities, Border Patrol was giving detainees wet-wipes to maintain personal hygiene," an inspector reported from crowded facilities in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, the busiest area for illegal crossings along the entire Mexico border. "Most single adult detainees were wearing the clothes they arrived in days, weeks, and even up to a month prior."
The report found "many single adults had been receiving only bologna sandwiches," and "some detainees on this diet were becoming constipated and required medical attention."
Other facilities were so stuffed that families with children were forced to sleep outdoors on the ground, with little more than plastic Mylar sheets, and illnesses spread rampantly among detainees and border agents.
The number of migrants taken into custody fell nearly 30 percent last month after reaching a high of 144,000 in May, a drop DHS officials primarily attribute to a crackdown on Central American migrants launched by the Mexican government after it reached a new enforcement pact with the Trump administration on June 7.
Officials say the Border Patrol's detainee population has dropped to about 11,000, and "soft-sided" tent facilities in the Rio Grande Valley, El Paso and Yuma, Arizona, border sectors have also alleviated the conditions detailed in the inspector general reports. The number of unaccompanied minors in Border Patrol custody has dropped from more than 2,350 on May 30 to fewer than 300 this week, according to DHS tallies.
Overcrowding continued to worsen into early June, when the inspectors conducted their visits in the Rio Grande Valley.
Compounding lawmakers' anger are revelations about vile posts targeting migrants and Democratic lawmakers on a private Facebook group patronized by current and former Border Patrol officers. Those reports, first published by ProPublica, have prompted widespread calls for investigations and a demand Wednesday from Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., to replace the leadership atop U.S. Customs and Border Protection to change the "toxic culture" at the agency.
Calling out acting commissioner Mark Morgan, Schumer said the agency's leaders have been "too callous about the way in which children and their families are treated" and have presided over an "out of control agency."
Morgan has been named acting commissioner of the CBP but is not scheduled to start at the agency until next week, a DHS official said. The DHS's inspector general is expected to investigate the Facebook posts; congressional committees are also expected to probe the matter.
"You're talking about 9,500 members of current and former Border Patrol agents who are part of this," Castro said of the private group. "That's not 10 guys just shooting the [bull] with each other. That's a significant percentage of the Border Patrol workforce."
A senior Democratic leadership aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations over the legislative agenda said, at this point, there are no plans for the House to take up the 2020 border spending bill in July, though leaders are considering legislation to add back the House-drafted funding conditions left out of the emergency bill.
The high-tension clash over the emergency bill — stirred up in part by the Hispanic Caucus, the aide said — has made the issue too politically treacherous for the time being. Democrats, especially in the House, are expected to continue pressing for close oversight of the Trump administration's border policies. The House Oversight and Reform Committee on Tuesday invited Morgan and acting Homeland Security secretary Kevin McAleenan to testify at a July 12 hearing. It was unclear whether they would appear.
Castro said in an interview Wednesday that the House needed to make a quick statement "through as much unity as possible and a show of strength" to avoid having to again swallow legislation that did not reflect key Democratic priorities.
The 2020 Homeland Security bill that emerged from House Appropriations Committee last month includes tightly restricted funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, for instance. At the time of the June 11 vote, Democrats on the committee unanimously supported the bill — including several CHC and Congressional Progressive Caucus members. Since the border blowups of recent weeks, any vote for ICE funding could spark an uproar, the aide said: "I don't know how you put the genie back in the bottle."
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., a CPC cochair, confirmed Wednesday that the party's left flank would push for further changes. "No blank checks," she said. "If we are going to allocate money, we have to make sure there is clear accountability."
The House this month is expected to take up the annual Pentagon authorization, a minimum-wage increase and other policy bills that stacked up in June as lawmakers worked through the annual spending bills.
Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said the hearing would encompass the reports out of the Clint station and other facilities, as well as the Facebook revelations and DHS inspector general reports.
"There seems to be open contempt for the rule of law and for basic human decency," Cummings said in a statement.
Hanging over the congressional response to the border crisis is a threat from Trump to begin a campaign of mass deportations targeting families living illegally in U.S. cities. On Saturday, a two-week reprieve announced by Trump is set to expire, and a senior White House official said raids are likely to begin over the ensuing week — targeting one city at a time. Another administration official confirmed that ICE will go forward with family deportations now that emergency border funding is in place. Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private deliberations.
"Not a blitz," as Trump previously threatened, the White House official said. "But raids are going to happen."
Trump has framed the deportations as a way to force Congress into a larger negotiation over changes to immigration policies, particularly the way the federal government handles migrants seeking asylum.
Castro rejected the idea that the House should respond directly to Trump's threats. It is better, he said, to wield the congressional power of the purse to rein in the administration.
"I don't think the House should reward the president for using immigrants to fuel his reelection campaign," Castro said.