Women held in rooms without running water, sleeping bags set up on concrete and children left apart from their families: That was what Democratic lawmakers said they heard about Monday as they toured two Texas border facilities.
Their emotional and graphic descriptions came on a day when ProPublica reported the existence of a secret Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents. Posts on the group’s page included jokes about migrants’ deaths, obscene GIFs and doctored images of Hispanic lawmakers, the report said. Some of the most offensive posts were directed at U.S. congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Monday’s visit to the border by more than a dozen members of Congress – including Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and Representative Veronica Escobar of Texas – was a specific focus of some of the abuse on Facebook, ProPublica reported. One post used vulgar language to encourage agents to “hurl a ‘burrito’ ” at the two women.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez fired back at the group Monday night in a series of tweets describing the visit. “These officers felt brazen in there,” she said, pointing out that members of the congressional delegation were asked to surrender their phones before the visit. “While mgmt was telling us it was a ‘secure facility’ where *members of Congress* had to check their phones, we caught officers trying to sneak photos, laughing.”
She added, referring to the Border Patrol’s parent agency, Customs and Border Protection: “CBP’s ‘good’ behavior was toxic. Imagine how they treat the women trapped inside.”
The head of the Border Patrol, Carla Provost, said the posts on Facebook were “completely inappropriate,” adding that “any employees found to have violated our standards of conduct will be held accountable.” On Monday night, Customs and Border Protection said it was opening an investigation into the Facebook group.
The ProPublica report further escalated the tense atmosphere the group of Democratic lawmakers found on their scheduled tour of facilities in Clint and El Paso.
“It feels like a jail,” Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III of Massachusetts said, “and they’re treating them like they’re in jail.”
“This entire system is broken,” he said. “They deserve better than this, and our country deserves better than this.”
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said in a tweet that Customs and Border Protection “did a lot of ‘cleaning up’ before we arrived.” She said women told her they had gone 15 days without a shower and were allowed to start bathing only four days ago, after the congressional visit was announced.
Some women, she said, told her they were forced to drink out of the toilet when the faucet in their cell broke. A Customs and Border Protection official declined to comment on the accusation.
At a news conference Monday afternoon, the lawmakers’ emotional descriptions were almost completely drowned out by vulgar and racist heckling from a handful of protesters, some carrying Trump 2020 banners and posters calling for tougher border security, deportation and the construction of a wall at the southwestern border.
“Bunch of knuckleheads,” one man yelled as the lawmakers tried to describe what they had seen at a Border Patrol station in El Paso and a migrant facility in Clint. “Break out the onions,” a woman cried, mocking how some of the Democrats became visibly emotional in front of the microphones.
“We don’t want Muslims here,” another yelled, minutes before Representative Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress, vowed to “outlove your hate.”
“You can all scream at me,” she said. “I will never stop speaking truth to power.”
Immigration activists added to the tumult as they tried to combat the insults and heckles with support for the lawmakers.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus had organized the day trip to the Texas border after reports of children being held in squalor in the Clint facility, accusations Trump administration officials have vigorously denied. The group also visited a facility affiliated with the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement.
But lawmakers emerged from the Border Patrol facilities describing living conditions unfit to hold adults or children, with Cuban, Honduran and Guatemalan women – including grandmothers and a young pregnant woman – sharing cells, some sobbing from fear of retribution from the guards for sharing their stories.
Representative Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania said that she was initially scolded by an official for miming an air hug to a migrant child. Lawmakers said they had been told not to speak to the migrants.
But ultimately, the group spoke with a number of migrants at the facilities. In images and videos taken by Representative Joaquin Castro of Texas, head of the Hispanic caucus, on a device smuggled into the facility, a group of women, some with tear-stained cheeks, can be seen huddling in blue sleeping bags. They told lawmakers they did not have access to medication. Officials denied those accusations.
When she asked one woman what brought her to the facility, Ms. Dean recalled, “The woman said: ‘I crossed that damn river. I wanted to come to America. That’s my offence.’ ”
Most of the Democratic lawmakers on the trip to Texas voted against a US$4.6-billion humanitarian aid package last month, citing concerns about sending more federal money to the border without strict oversight provisions. The visit appeared to harden their resolve.
“After I forced myself into a cell w/ women&began speaking to them, one of them described their treatment at the hands of officers as ‘psychological warfare,’” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez tweeted on Monday. “Tell me what about that is due to a ‘lack of funding?’”
President Donald Trump, shortly after the lawmakers wrapped up their news conference, signed the aid package into law.
“I don’t know what they’re saying about the members of Congress,” Mr. Trump told reporters Monday. “I know that the Border Patrol is not happy with the Democrats in Congress.”