“Inhumane.” ”Shameful.” ”Intolerable.” ”Brutal.” Mounting revelations about squalid and dangerously overcrowded conditions at Border Patrol holding centers have fueled a public outrage and protesters are rallying in the streets to decry the situation as un-American heading into the Fourth of July weekend.
The Homeland Security Department’s internal watchdog provided new details Tuesday about severe overcrowding in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, the busiest corridor for illegal crossings, noting children at three facilities had no access to showers and that some children under age 7 had been held in jammed centers for more than two weeks.
Some cells were so cramped that adults were forced to stand for days on end. Government inspectors described an increasingly dangerous situation, both for migrants and agents, with escape attempts and detainees clogging toilets with socks to get released during maintenance. A “ticking time bomb,” in the words of one facility manager.
The report echoed findings in May by the department’s inspector general about holding centers in El Paso, Texas: 900 people crammed into a cell with a maximum capacity of 125; detainees standing on toilets to have room to breathe; others wearing soiled clothing for days or weeks.
Headlines and searing images made public in past days and weeks have served as a stark reminder for Americans far from the border of a crisis for which solutions seem scarce: An immigrant father and daughter drowned in the Rio Grande. Reports that infants, children and teens have been locked up without adequate food and water. Revelations that five children have died in Border Patrol custody since December.
All of that is reverberating: Hundreds have protested this week from Rhode Island and Vermont to Texas and California, as cries to #CloseTheCamps take root on social media. About 50 demonstrators from a Jewish group congregated Wednesday outside a jail in Orange County where immigration detainees are held. Some locked arms and blocked the facility’s entrance. Then they sang and prayed for immigrant children who have died in government custody.
“The Jewish community has benefited a lot from this country as an immigrant community, and we have an obligation to make sure torture doesn’t happen and that borders remain open to people who are seeking refuge from violence and poverty,” said Aryeh Cohen, a rabbi and professor who joined the protest.
Still more demonstrations were planned for the July 4 holiday, including one being organized in Philadelphia by Jewish activists likening the detention of migrants to the treatment of Jews during Nazi Germany.
It all comes as President Donald Trump promises the “show of a lifetime” for the hundreds of thousands of revelers who flock to the National Mall every year on the Fourth of July. Tanks are in place for the display of military muscle.
Independence Day, said Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, is “a time to celebrate the birth of our country and the founding principles for which it stands. But it’s hard to believe anyone feels much pride when they see the images coming out of Border Patrol facilities. Compared to the ideals set out in our founding documents and inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty, the situation on our southern border feels like hypocrisy.”
Trump said Wednesday that Border Patrol agents are “not hospital workers, doctors or nurses” and again blamed Democrats for rejecting his proposals to fix the immigration system. “If illegal immigrants are unhappy with the conditions in quickly built or refitted detention centers, just tell them not to come. All problems solved!” the president tweeted.
On Monday, Trump signed legislation to provide $4.6 billion aimed at improving conditions. Kevin McAleenan, the acting Homeland Security secretary, said arrests on the Mexican border were expected to drop 25% in June from a month earlier, which would end an alarming string of monthly increases in family arrivals — largely from Central America’s Northern Triangle of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — and be consistent with a seasonal trend for illegal crossings to fall during dangerously hot summer months.
The Department of Health and Human Services, which takes custody of unaccompanied children from the Border Patrol, said Wednesday that additional holding sites are being assessed in and around Atlanta, Phoenix, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, Texas. The department is seeking 20-year leases for most of the sites, signaling they don’t expect challenges to fade.
The new centers would hold up to 500 children, according to bidding documents. Buildings must have up to 100,800 square feet (9,400 square meters) of space and the properties must include about 2 acres (0.8 hectares) for outdoor recreation.
It’s troublesome that the government “is looking for permanent, long-term structures like this, given its track record on abuses and child neglect that we have seen nationally,” said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials “I don’t think that this administration is capable of administrating a program in a humane way.”
Associated Press Writers Jeff Martin, Amy Taxin and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed.