Vice President Mike Pence and Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee visited a tent-like temporary detention facility in Donna and a U.S. Customs and Border Protection Station in McAllen Friday.
The same day, groups across the country scheduled vigils to protest conditions at migrant detention facilities.
Pence said he saw compassionate and professional care being provided by Border Patrol officials, a view in contrast with the findings of Democrats, medical professionals, and federal government inspectors.
“The time has come to stop the irresponsible rhetoric about the way that people are being cared for and treated, who are being detained in our facilities,” he said. “This is tough work. It’s overwhelming our system. It’s overcrowded here at McAllen. This is the epicenter of the crisis on the southern border. ”
The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General released a report this month that found dangerous overcrowding and prolonged detention at Border Patrol facilities in the Rio Grande Valley. Some children were held in detention longer than the 72 hours allowed under federal law.
Congressman Jim McGovern represents Massachusetts. He and a group of Democrats toured the same Border Patrol Station a day later. He posted a video from their tour on twitter where he asked migrants how long they had been detained.
We have been able to confirm what other Members of Congress have heard & seen:
-no showers for over 40 days.
-lights are kept on all night & people are sleeping on concrete floors.
-some are complaining they have gone hungry. pic.twitter.com/ob6kiwrCoQ
— Rep. Jim McGovern (@RepMcGovern) July 13, 2019
At a press conference following his visit, Pence said he doesn’t trust the word of the detained migrants.
“I wouldn’t take the word of people that are being detained here in McAllen for how they’re being treated,” said Pence. “I’m very confident that they’re being provided with shelter and water and food and access to healthcare and access to hygiene.”
Senator Lindsey Graham, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was also on the Vice President’s tour. He took Pence’s comments a step further and said he doesn’t want to see detained migrants released.
“If you let one of these people go because of their living conditions, you’re going to answer to me. I’ve been to Iraq and Afghanistan 54 times. Things are tough all over the world, so what’s your answer? Let them go?”
“We’re not going to let these people go. If we have to build tents 10 miles long to keep them in custody because Congress won’t provide the beds, we’re going to build the tents.”
Hours before Pence and the Republican Senators arrived in McAllen, dozens of protesters gathered outside the McAllen Central Processing Center, also known as the Ursula facility to hold a protest and a vigil.
The organizers held signs that read ‘keep kids out of cages’ and also clutched white crosses representing migrants who died while in immigration detention, or trying to cross the Rio Grande.
Eugene Delgado is an attorney with La Union Del Pueblo Entero, a local immigrant rights organization. He said things at the Ursula facility have gotten worse since last year at the peak of President Trump’s Zero Tolerance Policy.
“Earlier this summer it was reported that the conditions in Ursula could be compared to torture facilities,” said Delgado. “With extremely cold temperatures, lights on 24 hours a day, no adequate access to medical care, or basic sanitation.”
Delgado is referring to a trip made by a pediatrician that reported these instances.
Also at the protest were three migrant children. They were once held in detention facilities and spoke to the crowd about what they experienced while detained.
“I felt really sad because I wasn’t with my family,” said 10-year-old Dayra in Spanish. “It was really cold and they would put us on the floor with blankets. I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t know what had happened to my mom or my dad.”
Juanita Valdez Cox is the executive director of LUPE. She said she hopes the protest helps show expected officials what’s really happening here.
“We’re trying one more time for them to hear the cries, to hear the voices of the community. We are saying what is happening here is not normal and you need to figure out a way to take care of it,” said Valdez Cox. “They come, they visit, they visit with Border Patrol, but they never hear from the community, they don’t talk to us.”
The group of Democratic members of Congress did meet with community members in the Rio Grande Valley on Saturday. They also crossed into Mexico to help feed migrant families who are waiting to enter the U.S. to claim asylum.
Wow, very moving. We assembled and served hundreds of hot dogs, chili, salad and other food to migrants near the bridge. Intrepid local volunteers brought the grub. So many women, men and children wondering whether they will be safe tonight and what is next for them. pic.twitter.com/i16tLDEyAt
— Rep. Andy Levin (@RepAndyLevin) July 14, 2019
The Democratic lawmakers also met with Sister Norma Pimentel at the Catholic Charities Respite Center, where some released migrants go after being processed by Border Patrol.
Migrants are able to eat, take showers and sometimes get new clothes at the respite center before heading north with their notice to appear document for immigration court.
Congressman Jim McGovern said he was ashamed of what he saw at the detention facilities back in the U.S. In a tweet, he said they will not stop fighting until every family is treated with respect and dignity.