By Dina Arevalo, Staff writer
McALLEN — Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., led a contingent of a dozen Senate Democrats in a tour Friday of several Rio Grande Valley migrant facilities, precisely one week after a similar visit by Vice President Mike Pence, Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and top immigration brass.
The Democratic delegation toured migrant detention facilities, as well as the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen.
Afterward, the delegation held a news conference outside the U.S. Border Patrol Central Processing Center on Ursula Avenue in McAllen.
“It’s been a very, very difficult day,” Schumer said. “To see these people, particularly the children, treated in such inhumane conditions just tears at your heartstrings and really makes you feel awful.”
Schumer added that border agents allowed the group to view “whatever we wanted to see,” but noted that efforts had been made to “make things look better.”
“We did see one good place — run by Catholic Charities and Sister Norma — where the people were treated well,” Schumer said.
However, he called the “awful, awful, awful” condition of the government-run migrant facilities the group toured Friday solely the result of “shameful” presidential policy.
During his own tours of the facilities last week, Vice President Mike Pence lauded immigration officials for “doing a good job in difficult circumstances.”
“We saw compassionate care for families that have been swept up in this wave of illegal immigration,” Pence said during a news conference immediately following a tour through a nearby McAllen facility last week.
The vice president added that his visit came at the request of President Donald Trump, who balked at what he considered “slanderous” reporting about border agents.
The vice president also criticized Democrats for using harsh rhetoric in calling the situation a “manufactured crisis,” obfuscating a very “real” crisis along the southern border.
But in their remarks this Friday, the Democratic Senate delegation, too, had words of praise for the immigration agents tasked with working at the Valley’s migrant detention centers.
“There are a lot of folks in facilities like this that are trying to do the right thing,” Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said. “But they’ve only recently been getting the help that they need.”
Later, Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal echoed Republican talking points that the influx of Central American migrants crossing into the country presents a humanitarian crisis; however, Blumenthal said it’s a crisis of the president’s making.
“It is a humanitarian crisis of Donald Trump’s making. And the money — four-plus billion dollars — will help to correct some of the failings of this system. But, fundamentally, it is broken,” Blumenthal said, referring to a $4.6 billion emergency supplemental funding package approved by Congress late last month to help alleviate overcrowding and unsanitary conditions at border detention facilities.
“Let me say this with gratitude — the folks who work here, Customs and Border Protection personnel, have a difficult, near-impossible job to do. And that’s also of Donald Trump’s making,” Blumenthal said.
Repeatedly, members of the delegation were critical of the president and initiatives they said he has implemented simply to be cruel.
“I’m reminded of what I saw today is a stain, a dark chapter in the nation’s history,” New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez said.
Menendez described speaking to two mothers with infants who came to the U.S. to escape lethal violence. Migrants like them risk everything to come here only to face “metering” at legal ports of entry — a process by which scores of asylum-seeking migrants have found themselves languishing for weeks or months in the shadow of international bridges before being able to set foot on U.S. soil.
“And what are they told? ‘Oh no, no hoy. Not today. Oh no, not mañana. Oh no, not a week. Oh no, not a month,’” Menendez said.
“I don’t know what type of politics that is for the president of the United States, but it’s shameful,” he said.
“The president could do good work, if he wanted to, to lead the country in the right direction, which is to fix our broken immigration system,” Casey said. “But unfortunately, the president uses language which is only about fear, and smear, and demonize and divide, instead of leading the country in the right direction.”
Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley described the current detention policies as unacceptable. “At every step the administration is making life as miserable and difficult as possible, including inflicting enormous trauma on children,” Merkley said after the news conference.
Last Friday, while the vice president was visiting the Valley detention facilities, Merkley and Schumer — along with Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala D. Harris — introduced legislation meant to provide better protections for migrant children. It’s something Merkley and the delegation spoke of Friday.
The bill, called the Stop Cruelty to Migrant Children Act, would limit family separations, ensure access to legal counsel for unaccompanied children, and facilitate improvements for children in detention, including requiring that children receive three meals a day and have better access to hygiene products.
The bill would also prohibit for-profit contractors from operating shelters or facilities on the behalf of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, and would require such shelters to adhere to the Flores Settlement Agreement, which mandates children and families not be held in detention longer than 20 days.
The proposed legislation stands in sharp contrast to legislative promises made by the Republican delegation just one week ago, when Sen. Lindsey Graham, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, proposed a litany of policy changes that would, among other things, lengthen the amount of time migrants can be held in detention.
“If you want to let them go because it’s too overcrowded, over my politically dead body, ‘cause you’ll destroy the country,” Graham said last week.
Too, Graham proposed an “asylum timeout” whereby Central American migrants would temporarily not be allowed to apply for asylum. Just this week, the administration seemingly put the timeout into effect when it announced a new rule requiring migrants from the northern triangle — Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — to apply for asylum in the first country they pass through before getting to the U.S.
“I’m very concerned about all of the twists and turns of the administration all designed to basically undermine our laws, our national laws, and the international laws on how to address refugees,” Merkley said when asked if the Democrats had a response to the new rule.
When asked the same question, Schumer called the policy rotten, but offered no rebuttal.
“We think the policies are rotten at the top, rotten at the top,” Schumer said after the news conference.
Indeed, earlier, one of Schumer’s comments seemed to mirror the Republican policy.
“We have a solution that could work,” Schumer said. “Let them apply for asylum in Honduras and Guatemala and El Salvador and things could be fair and a lot easier.”