A look inside an immigration holding facility: GOP senators ‘stunned’ by conditions at ‘overwhelmed’ site

WASHINGTON – After touring a controversial migrant facility in Texas on Friday, a pair of Republican senators told USA TODAY they were stunned by the overcrowded conditions in which children are being held.

Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., said the Customs and Border Protection facility in Donna, Texas, was “completely overwhelmed.”

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said he was “absolutely stunned” with the conditions he saw Friday morning at the CBP facility.

“It’s breathtaking to be there because every one of those old, plexiglass cells is literally packed,” Lankford said. “The entire floor is covered with kids, and then there’ll be sitting around the edge because there’s no floor space for them.”

Braun and Lankford were part of a group of more than a dozen Republican senators who visited the Rio Grande Valley as the Biden administration continues to come under fire by both Republicans and Democrats for the influx of migrants at the southern border.

The Biden administration is struggling to grapple with an increase of migrants coming to the U.S.-Mexico border. Officials have said they will only accept children, and in some cases, have begun accepting some families, saying that Mexico will not take some families with small children.

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During the visit to the border, a first for Braun, he and the other Republicans were briefed by officials on the situation, toured the facility in Donna and took a boat tour on the Rio Grande in Mission, Texas.

Braun told USA TODAY he was concerned for the hygiene of the children, and the close proximity of the immigrants during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He said Border Patrol agents told him children were arriving with “phone numbers on their hands, a piece of paper on their foreheads,” of family members already in the U.S.

The Indiana Republican said the senators were told not to take photos or videos of the facility but “that didn’t work” and the visitors captured images of the conditions anyway.

Photos taken Friday, and given to USA TODAY by Braun’s office Saturday, show at least 10 children grouped together near a playpen, sleeping on mats. Another shows families, some with face masks, also on mats in a makeshift tent-area. A TV in the corner plays a news channel.

Immigration holding facility in Donna, Texas on Friday, March 26. Taken by Senator Mike Bruan, R-Ind.
Immigration holding facility in Donna, Texas on Friday, March 26. Taken by Senator Mike Bruan, R-Ind.

The Biden administration earlier this week released photos and two videos of the CBP facilities in Donna and El Paso, Texas. Video of the Donna facility, which was filmed the week prior to being released, showed children getting health screenings, lining up to receive food, and lying on mats on the floor with foil blankets.

Lankford said “there’s so many of them, they can’t even lay down,” adding “it’s just crammed.” He said there are bathrooms and sinks there where they saw Border Patrol agents walking children “in and out, one after another to be able to go back in and out.”

He said in an outdoor area that has Astroturf, known as the “recreation area,” there were about 100 children waiting to be/transferred to an HHS facility. He said they were being tested for COVID-19 before the transfer, and that around 15 had tested positive.

“I thought okay, well, we’ve got kids testing positive for COVID that have been in that pod, that closely packed in,” Lankford said. “It was he was just pretty stark to be able to see what’s happening there.”

The Oklahoma senator said he previously visited the Donna facility in 2019, where he said that children were separated by age groups in pods, as well as gender. While children are still separated by gender, Lankford noted that now due to overcrowding, there were children who seemed to be around 11-years-old grouped with older teens. He said very young children were separated from the older ones though.

The Biden administration is turning away a majority of migrants under Title 42 – a policy implemented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under the Trump administration – that allows CBP to expel undocumented migrants to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in holding facilities. But unlike former President Donald Trump , Biden is now taking in children, saying that it would be dangerous for them to make the journey on their own.

During a press conference Thursday, however, Biden indicated that he would be willing to deport some unaccompanied children depending on their cases.

The Biden administration has conceded that the CBP facilities are not suitable for children. Officials from Health and Human Services and the Office of Refugee Resettlement are being sent to the CBP facilities to help speed up the process of vetting for potential sponsors or family members of the unaccompanied children.

In addition, HHS is working to open more influx facilities to move children out of CBP custody. A second HHS facility is being built in Carrizo Springs, Texas, where a temporary facility is already located. With the help of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, other sites will also be opened including ones at the Freeman Expo Center in San Antonio and at the San Diego Convention Center in San Diego.

Bruan told USA TODAY that during the boat tour on the Rio Grande, “there was a body floating” of someone who had drowned during the dangerous trip, and the senators heard coyotes, people who smuggle immigrants across the border, mocking Border Patrol agents.

Earlier this week, CBP said in a statement that they found a 9-year-old girl from Mexico who apparently drowned while trying to cross the Rio Grande into the U.S.

In a statement issued Thursday, CBP said they found the child on March 20 stranded and unconscious on an island on the Mexican side of the river. CBP said in the statement that “a mother from Guatemala and her 3-year-old child from Mexico” were also found with the 9-year-old girl. The mother and 3-year-old were initially unresponsive but regained conciseness.

Republicans have criticized Biden’s immigration policies amid the influx of migrants at the border, saying that reversing Trump-era policies led to the increase. Democrats have instead pointed the blame at the Trump administration, saying that Trump’s policies were inhumane.

Braun said it was a mistake for people to “dismiss what Trump was doing, because that’s the only thing that’ll work to get the border secure.”

Several of Trump’s hardline immigration policies were in place whenLankford visited the Donna facility in 2019. The Migrant Protection Protocols – also known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, which forced migrants to stay in Mexico while they waited for their court hearing –were also in place at that time. Critics argued the border cities that migrants were forced to stay in under those policies were often dangerous.

In addition, Trump in 2019 had begun “metering” migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, which was a process by CBP that limited the number of people per day who could request asylum at a port of entry along the southern border.

Biden reversed the Migrant Protection Protocols and has since begun reprocessing individuals who had active asylum claims.

As of Friday, there were 12,551 unaccompanied children in Health and Human Services custody and another 5,495 children in CBP custody, according to numbers released by HHS.

Lankford told USA TODAY that one solution to help with the backlog and to quickly move children out of the facilities would be to “actually process asylum claims while they are still in detention there.”

Lankford said that when it comes to adults claiming asylum, “we should keep them at the border, do the hearing. If they don’t qualify, then we should return them back to the country.”

“Obviously, this is not what’s being portrayed by the administration of what is being done for the kids at the border,” Lankford said of what he saw on his visit.

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