Rep. Eshoo Trip To the Border - June 2018
I traveled to Texas last weekend with several House colleagues to see first-hand the effects of the President’s policy of ‘Zero Tolerance’ and how it is being implemented. In all my years of public service, I’ve never witnessed anything remotely close to what I saw.
The Congressional delegation’s first visit was to the McAllen Border Patrol Station where we were briefed by the station’s leadership about their work patrolling the southern border and their responsibilities as law enforcement agents. I have no doubts that the agents have an incredibly difficult job protecting our southern border because there are criminals, gang members, and drug dealers who are dangerous and we must do everything possible to keep them out of our country. But the children I saw and met are not threats to our national security.
We examined the intake center operated by the Border Patrol where individuals apprehended by the agents are fingerprinted. I witnessed children 5 years old and younger in jail cells sleeping on cement floors under Mylar covers. No cots. No mats. Little ones huddled under Mylar on cement. We were prohibited by Border Patrol agents from giving little stuffed animals to the children. Some were by themselves and quiet. Some were crying. Most had a dazed look of desperation. Some babies were being bottle fed by a family member in cells that held approximately 30. When we spoke through interpreters to some of the women being held with children, they told us they’d been in the holding cells for two days, despite Border Patrol agents informing us that individuals were only held in these conditions for a few hours at a time. We also spoke to grown men who had spent days and sometimes weeks traveling to the border, fleeing the violence of drug cartels, gangs and severe abuse.
We next toured the McAllen Border Patrol Station’s processing center, a large warehouse-style facility that functions as ground zero for the Trump Administration’s Zero Tolerance policy. All individuals apprehended by the McAllen Border Patrol are held in large metal cages constructed with chain-link fencing and separated into four groups: (1) female heads of household and their children; (2) male heads of household and their children; (3) male unaccompanied minors; and (4) female unaccompanied minors. Despite clear legal requirements under the Flores Settlement Agreement that children are required to be held in facilities that “are safe and sanitary” with “adequate temperature control and ventilation,” the facility we toured was dirty with stale air, parts of the facility were without power following a recent rain storm, and children were again forced to sleep on floors, although in this setting they had padded mats. Because of the Trump Administration’s Zero Tolerance policy, adults are then referred to the Department of Justice for prosecution and ICE detention centers for deportation proceedings, even if they are seeking asylum. Children are sent to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to be placed in shelters or with relatives in the U.S. At no point in this process were detained individuals provided access to attorneys or other legal representation.
The delegation boarded an ICE bus for the drive to their Port Isabel Detention Center in the Brownsville area, a facility that resembles a maximum security prison and has the capacity to hold 1,200 inmates. Individuals held in this facility are awaiting deportation or to appear before an immigration judge to determine their asylum claim. We met with several mothers who had their children separated from them. They didn’t know where their children were located, nor did they have access to legal representation. We were told by ICE staff that detained individuals are provided with a list of pro bono legal groups to call for legal assistance, but these individuals did not have the financial resources to make any call, nor did they have any clear understanding of their rights. I also learned that all detained individuals, including children, are given what is known as an ‘A-Number’ or Alien Registration Number, yet there is no interoperable system in place between the agencies to link these numbers between children who are placed in the care of HHS ORR and their families being held by ICE, creating widespread confusion between the agencies about their responsibilities with respect to these families. Put simply, there is widespread confusion among the agencies in charge of the children and those in charge of their families.
Children separated from their families and unaccompanied minors detained at the border have been sent to communities throughout the U.S., yet HHS has not been forthcoming about where and in what conditions the children are being housed, nor how the Administration plans to reunite them with their families. Last week I wrote to HHS Secretary Alex Azar demanding he inform me whether any of the children who have been separated are currently being housed in the 18th Congressional District.
Confusion abounds relative to the Executive Order the President signed last week to adjust his policy of family separations. I want to be clear about what this Order does: instead of separating families, it now requires ICE to jail them together. The President’s Order substitutes one form of child abuse for another. It also does nothing to reunite the thousands of separated children with their families. It does nothing to end the Administration’s Zero Tolerance policy of prosecuting all refugees as criminals. This is the policy that caused these separations to happen, and while the President could put an end to it today, his Executive Order reaffirms it.
My visit to the Border Patrol operations and the ICE facility confirmed that there are widespread due-process violations taking place. We are a nation of laws and under both the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, neither the federal government nor state governments may deprive any person “of life, liberty, or property” without due process of law, including non- U.S. citizens. The U.S. has also signed and Congress ratified, the 1968 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees which prohibits parties to the treaty from imposing “penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened.”
Many of you have asked me what to do to help. Some of the pressing needs at this time are pro bono legal assistance for the children and families who have asylum claims. Attorneys, Spanish-speaking interpreters, and mental health professionals who can donate their time and professional expertise are needed as well. I’ve posted a list of groups working on the front lines of this crisis that can be contacted for more information. I’m also very proud of my constituents, Dave and Charlotte Willner of Menlo Park, who have raised $20 million for the organization RAICES, to provide free legal services to detained immigrant children and families at the border.
My mother grew up in San Francisco, and when I was growing up I recall her stories of neighbors being taken away with their children to internment camps. There are too many similarities. The common denominator between that era and today is that the policies were and are wrong. Certainly we must and can protect our national security and guard our borders, but we should not and cannot operate outside our laws, our Constitution, our values, and our ideals.
History will remember this crisis as a direct assault on the values and ideals that have defined America since its founding. I hope this report on my trip will help you better understand the consequences of this Administration’s policies and what is at stake for the future our country if we allow these policies to continue.
Anna G. Eshoo