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Special Report: Migrant Detention Centers

July 18th, 2019

Dear Friends,

This is a special E-Newsletter to report to my constituents about my recent trip taken on July 12th and 13th with a Congressional Delegation of 20 Members to McAllen and Brownsville, Texas. We visited the largest Border Patrol Station in the U.S. and Centralized Processing Center “Ursula,” crossed the Gateway International Bridge over the Rio Grande to visit the Brownsville Port of Entry, and we also met with asylum seekers in Mexico.

I visited McAllen and Ursula a year ago, yet I was not prepared for what I witnessed. The Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security released a report on July 2nd detailing several disturbing violations at border facilities in Texas, and I witnessed them myself at McAllen. I saw 40-plus young men jammed into cells built to hold 8 to 10 persons, a clear violation by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) who are responsible for providing a secure environment and following safety standards as dictated by the Fire Marshal. CBP must also abide by a 72-hour detention time limit for detainees, but we were informed by many that they had been detained for days, weeks, and some over a month. CBP has neglected to provide proper hygiene. The cells we visited had an overwhelming stench, and we learned from our conversations that CBP had failed their requirements to provide showers after 72 hours of detention, and clean clothes were not provided for weeks. Desperate for better conditions, several men shouted out to us the number of days they’ve been in the cells. They stand 24 hours a day because there is no room to sit or lie down, and lights are on 24/7.

McAllen Border Patrol Station

The Congressional Delegation was briefed by CBP before entering the detention area in Ursula where children were being kept.  Before entering, the first things I noticed were the overwhelming odors and the sounds of children crying. CBP asked us to wear face masks because of a recent case of meningitis, and we were also warned about flu, lice, and other ailments.  Upon entering the detention area I saw the cages that separate families and children by gender and age.  Most of the children looked exhausted and hid under their silver mylar ‘blankets.’ Some peeked their heads out in curiosity and asked us with wary eyes when they could leave.

Centralized Processing Center “Ursula”

The conditions I witnessed in Ursula are detailed in the OIG’s report, as well as the House Oversight Committee’s report on child separations. We spoke with children who have been held for weeks and some for over a month, a clear violation of the Flores Agreement which bars children from being held in detention for longer than 72 hours. The warehouse where they’re detained is windowless and the lights remain on 24 hours a day. Off to the side, there was a line out the door for children waiting to be medically screened. The CBP officers shared with us the toll it is taking on them to care for the children, and one officer thanked me personally for voting for more funding so they could obtain the additional supplies needed to care for them. In the corner of this huge warehouse, there were washing machines, boxes of clothes, and snacks for the children.

Centralized Processing Center “Ursula”

Our delegation visited the Catholic Charities Respite Center where Sister Norma Pimentel leads an army of volunteers to aid those released from the detention centers. Through donations from all over the country, they provide showers, clean clothing, and hot meals for the former detainees, and they help them move on to their next destination. I brought some personal hygiene supplies and baby bottles to donate to the effort, and we were also informed about the Center’s partnership with the City of McAllen to provide bus service for newly released detainees. We listened to the many heartbreaking testimonies of families about their long and dangerous journeys to the U.S. and the horrifying realities of living in unimaginable violence that caused them to flee their home countries in the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras). To a person, they fled the violence in one of these three countries.

Catholic Charities Respite Center

I walked across the Gateway International Bridge over the Rio Grande to cross the U.S./Mexico border. The temperature was over 100 degrees, and on the Mexican side there was a sizable crowd of asylum seekers that our delegation had the opportunity to speak with.

Brownsville Port of Entry – Mexico side

We learned about the “metering” system for those seeking asylum which began under the Trump Administration. I examined the border station’s public list with more than 7,000 names of individuals hoping to claim asylum in the United States.  When I inquired how long it took to get to the top of the list, I was told it had nothing to do with the date of application, but rather one’s ability to pay the most to immigration officials in Mexico. Given that there are thousands of people waiting to apply for asylum at this location alone, it was even more appalling to learn that CBP only processes 20 cases per day.

Viewing the list posted outside the border station in Mexico

The final location we visited was the Good Neighbor Settlement House where I met Marianela Ramirez-Watson, the Director for the Refugee Respite Program. A retired teacher of 50 years, she described the services they provide to the community. Like the Catholic Charities Respite Center, they provide former detainees hot food, clean clothing, hygiene kits, and showers after being released by CBP. They also assist in making arrangements to reunite families with relatives in the U.S. As we spoke, Marianela received a call informing her that 16 detainees were being released shortly, and she immediately was off to make arrangements for them. Witnessing the extraordinary work of these organizations and the goodness of all the people volunteering, coupled with the support they receive from caring people across our country inspired me.

My visit gave me a renewed perspective on the destructive policies of the current Administration.  Instead of taking a coordinated, multi-pronged approach to the flood of migrants seeking safety at our border, the Trump Administration has chosen to close our borders and withhold critical funding to help stabilize the countries from which these families are fleeing. The root causes of crime and corruption in the Northern Triangle are being ignored by the Administration, and its decision to suspend humanitarian aid to these countries has been catastrophic.

I do not accept the current situation as the ‘new normal.’ This week, my colleagues and I are working on legislation to address these issues, and our goals include:

  • Addressing the root cause of why so many families are fleeing the Northern Triangle in Central America… horrific violence, and targeting aide to address it;
  • Establishing and enforcing basic agency standards that protect migrants when they are detained. I’m a cosponsor of the Humanitarian Standards for Individuals in CBP Custody Act, which establishes minimum standards for CBP detention facilities, including requiring all detainees to have a health screening, access to drinking water and basic hygiene products, minimum space requirements, and better training for Border Patrol officers; and
  • Comprehensive immigration reform that addresses the backlog of asylum claims, including hiring more immigration judges and ending the metering system.

I will continue to do everything I can to see that those who come to our borders as refugees are treated as nothing less than what they are: human beings. I thank you for your calls and your messages of conscience, and want you to know I draw great strength and inspiration from you.

Sincerely,

Anna G. Eshoo

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