McALLEN — Vice President Mike Pence, his wife, Karen Pence, along with Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, arrived in the Rio Grande Valley Friday to tour immigration detention centers and hold a roundtable discussion with border agents.
In this his second visit to the region, the vice president said the trip came at the behest of President Donald Trump in the wake of what the president called “slanderous” reporting about federal immigration agents.
Pence criticized Democrats for obstructing efforts at reforming the nation’s immigration policy through the use of “harsh rhetoric.”
“The facts are that we have a crisis on our southern border that is being driven by human traffickers who are exploiting loopholes in American law to entice vulnerable families to make a long and dangerous journey north,” Pence said.
He also rebutted the term “manufactured crisis,” calling the crisis “real” and requiring Congress “act now.”
LEGISLATE THE PROBLEM
To that end, the roundtable discussion — and the news conference that followed afterward — served as a platform for the Republican contingent to push for new immigration legislation sponsored by South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham that would radically change U.S. immigration law.
“People are making billions of dollars exploiting these people,” Graham said during a
roundtable discussion held just after the delegation had visited the Donna
processing center — a soft-sided structure meant to accommodate 500 migrants,
but which senators on Friday said contained close to 1,000 people.
“We’re going to change our asylum laws — that you have to apply in your home country or in Mexico. No longer do you come here,” Graham said.
The bill would countermand the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement, which mandates that families seeking asylum not be held in detention longer than 20 days. Graham didn’t specify how long migrants would be held in detention under the proposed legislation, merely saying that it “would be modified so we have more than 20 days.”
Too, the bill would enable immigration officials to deport unaccompanied children rather than detain them or transfer them to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
The bill also calls for an additional 500 federal immigration judges.
Finally, Graham called for putting a temporary stop to the ability of migrants in the U.S. from applying for asylum in what he called a “timeout.”
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, called the influx of immigrants and the overcrowded detention centers a “human-caused disaster” that can only be fixed by Congress.
Apprehensions and detentions are up, said Rodolfo “Rudy” Karisch, chief Border Patrol agent for the Rio Grande Valley.
Currently, border agents have apprehended 283,000 migrants compared to 162,000 by this point last year, Karisch said.
“It’s just going to continue … to plague this country because it’s probably not stopping,” he said, adding that the proposed legislation would help border agents keep people safe.
THE DETENTION CENTERS
The delegation arrived at McCreery Aviation in McAllen at approximately 1:30 p.m. From there, they traveled to the Donna processing center, where they were able to speak to several mothers and children, the vice president said.
“For Karen and me it was, frankly, heartbreaking, as parents, to talk to young children who told us of having walked two and three months up the peninsula to cross into our country,” Pence said afterward.
North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis spoke of seeing children watching cartoons on television sets and mothers using changing tables to see to their infants.
“We saw compassionate care for families,” Pence said.
They next traveled to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in McAllen, which primarily houses adult migrants.
The delegation got a first-hand look at living conditions during a short tour held between the roundtable and the news conference. The vice president lauded immigration officials for doing a “good job in difficult circumstances,” adding that he was unsurprised to see the overcrowding at the adult-only detention facility.
“The truth is, what’s witnessed here today is the overcrowding of this border station and the overall crisis at our border is that Congress must do more,” Pence said.
But, it was the McAllen facility which drew scrutiny from reporters, who asked the vice president if the conditions he witnessed met the administration’s “standard for how we take care of people.”
Just minutes after extolling positive comments from children and mothers in Donna whom he said were happy and well taken care of, Pence downplayed comments from adult detainees in McAllen.
“I wouldn’t take the word of people that are being detained here in McAllen for how they’re being treated, but I’m very confident that they’re being provided with shelter, and water, and food, and access to health care, and access to hygiene,” Pence said.
Pressed again if he thought the conditions were acceptable, Pence said the conditions he saw did not surprise him.
Repeatedly, the vice president and senators spoke of a job being done well, given the circumstances. And repeatedly, they criticized Democrats for sensationalizing conditions here to promote “leftist” rhetoric; however, a report from the Office of the Inspector General released at the beginning of the month detailed dangerous conditions that required immediate correction at five Valley facilities.
“(Several) Rio Grande Valley facilities struggled to meet other TEDS standards for UACs and families,” the report reads in part, referring to the National Standards on Transport, Escort, Detention, and Search. They discovered numerous people who were held longer than allowed.
Children had gone days without being served a hot meal, went extended periods of time without a change of clothes and other sanitary necessities. “(Children) at three of the five Border Patrol facilities we visited had no access to showers,” the report read.
Holding areas at adult facilities were far beyond capacity. In some instances, adult detainees were kept in standing-room only conditions for at least a week.
The unannounced tour through another facility by federal inspectors had to be cut short after their presence began to visibly agitate “an already difficult situation.”
NOT LETTING THEM GO
Despite the overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, Sen. Graham vowed that migrant detainees would not be released from custody. “If we have to build tents 10 miles long to keep ‘em in custody ‘cause Congress won’t provide the beds, we’re gonna build the tents,” Graham said, his voice rising.
“If you want to let them go because it’s too overcrowded, over my politically dead body, cause you’ll destroy the country,” he added a moment later.
In a statement issued Thursday ahead of Pence’s border visit, Texas Democratic Party Communications Director Abhi Rahman dismissed the VP’s trip as a photo op.
“While Pence and Cornyn parade cameras around these facilities and deny that they are holding children in migrant camps, Texas Democrats are fighting to improve the lives of every child here in Texas,” Rahman said in the statement.
Rahman also called for “comprehensive immigration reform” rather than what he dubbed the perpetuation of “cruel and inhumane border policies.”