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‘A lot of kids are still in cages ...’ Congressman visits immigrant detention centers

Congressman Josh Harder tours border detention center

U.S Rep. Josh Harder visited the southern border August 13, 2019 to take a look at the conditions in which asylum-seekers and other immigrants are being held. The tour included a series of customs and border patrol facilities near McAllen, Texas.
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U.S Rep. Josh Harder visited the southern border August 13, 2019 to take a look at the conditions in which asylum-seekers and other immigrants are being held. The tour included a series of customs and border patrol facilities near McAllen, Texas.

U.S. Rep. Josh Harder, D-Turlock, found that conditions have slightly improved at an infamous border detention facility housing immigrants and asylum-seekers in McAllen, Texas. But he says there are still plenty of improvements that need to be made.

Harder was part of a congressional delegation on Tuesday that visited a series of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol facilities near the border with Mexico in southern Texas, including the largest immigrant detention center in the country. He said the border patrol is not the right agency to be operating facilities that process and house a few thousand people a day, including children.

The Central California congressman said one border patrol agent told him he would rather be looking for drug smugglers in the mountains, but they are instead taking care of 5-year-olds. Harder said having agents armed with guns is not the appropriate environment for children.

“Imagine if the U.S. Army was taking care of kindergartners,” Harder told The Modesto Bee in a phone interview Wednesday. “And they’re not particularly good at it.”

Also part of the delegation was Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick. The Republican from Pennsylvania has said in a news release that “the humanitarian crisis on America’s southern border has been politicized to an unacceptable degree,” and he wanted to see with his own eyes the conditions these families are living in.

In a phone call after touring the facilities, Fitzpatrick told the Bucks County Courier Times “We saw incredible overcrowding but not mistreatment. We spoke to several children and adults, and they all said they were being treated well.”

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U.S Rep. Josh Harder led a bipartisan fact-finding mission at the southern border Tuesday August 13, 2019 to get a first-hand look at the conditions in which asylum-seekers and other immigrants are being held. During the tour Harder visited a series of Customs and Border Patrol facilities in McAllen, Texas. Courtesy of U.S Rep. Josh Harder

The California congressman said he found a deeply overloaded and broken system as he toured the facilities with border patrol officials. He said kids now have toothbrushes, diapers and running water. He called those improvements “baby steps” that federal officials have taken in the right direction, but it’s not enough.

“A lot of kids are still in cages, and it’s still overcrowded and inhumane,” Harder said in a news release. “It’s a humanitarian crisis of our own making, and we can never ever let it happen again.”

Harder and Fitzpatrick visited the largest immigrant processing center in the country and a makeshift holding center, which was built in response to the influx of people seeking asylum earlier this year. Harder said the processing center is essentially just a large warehouse.

About 1,500 people were held in the three border facilities when the congressmen visited earlier this week. But that number fluctuates daily, and an average of 3,000 immigrants show up there each day. Harder said most of them are people seeking asylum in the United States. He said those detained are typically held there for several days or weeks.

Where these immigrants go to after detention centers depends on each case, according to Harder.

Children and families are usually sent to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and its variety of partnering foster programs. Those with criminal backgrounds are transferred to the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Others are released on their own recognizance and ordered to appear in an immigration court.

Harder said about 200 immigrants a day are released from the detention centers and sent back across the Mexican border. He said these immigrants also are given immigration court dates.

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U.S Rep. Josh Harder led a bipartisan fact-finding mission at the southern border Tuesday August 13, 2019 to get a first-hand look at the conditions in which asylum-seekers and other immigrants are being held. During the tour Harder visited a series of Customs and Border Patrol facilities in McAllen, Texas. Courtesy of U.S Rep. Josh Harder

With help from Spanish language interpreters, Harder spoke to several people detained at the centers, including a mother and her 5-year-old son, Giovanni. They had just arrived at the Texas detention center after a 9-month journey from Honduras.

He also spoke to a woman who fled violence and political upheaval in Central America on “The Beast,” a massive freight train that immigrants ride atop of through Mexico. He said the woman described for him her harrowing experience as they joined the caravan to the U.S. border.

“And they don’t know what’s happening next,” Harder told The Bee.

The Washington Post this week published a news report along with a slideshow of images from inside the McAllen, Texas, immigrant processing center. Immigrants and border agents call the center “la perrera,” which is “the dog kennel” in Spanish, the newspaper reported.

Arrests along the southern border have dropped 43 percent since May, when U.S. agents took 144,000 migrants into custody, the busiest month in a dozen years, according to the Washington Post.

The number of family separations is down at the detention centers, Harder said, but kids are still separated from relatives who are not their parents. And there are still unaccompanied children who show up at the border and are kept separately from everyone else.

Everyone in the centers sleeps on floor mats, and the lights are on 24 hours a day for safety reasons, encircled by chain-link fences.

“They’re called cages for a good reason,” Harder told The Bee. “It’s really a heart-wrenching thing to see with your own eyes.”

He said the public outcry about conditions at the detention centers has pushed the federal government to make the minor improvements, so far.

“It’s time for a real bipartisan solution that fixes our broken immigration system and guarantees humane conditions for families at the border,” Harder said in the news release. “We have to keep public and congressional pressure up to right this wrong.”

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Rosalio Ahumada writes news stories about criminal court cases in Stanislaus County for The Modesto Bee, issues related to immigration and immigrant communities and breaking news related to crime and public safety. From time to time, he covers the Modesto City Council meetings. He has worked as a news reporter in the Northern San Joaquin Valley since 2004.
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