McALLEN, Tx. — United States Rep. Anne Kuster traveled with a congressional delegation to McAllen and Brownsville, Texas over the weekend to observe the conditions at detention centers for asylum-seekers.
Kuster visited the same centers a year ago. This time, she traveled with Reps. Jackie Speier (D-CA), Vicente Gonzalez (D-TX), Filemon Vela (D-TX) and 17 other Democratic members of Congress.
Last year she went to investigate allegations of children being taken from their families at the border.
“It was deeply, deeply disturbing,” said Kuster in a press conference on Monday. “We met with 40 mothers who had had their children taken. The good news is that policy has ended.”
However, children not accompanied by their parents are still separated from the adults that brought them. “They are concerned that adults will bring unrelated children to get more lenient treatment from ICE,” said Kuster.
About 310 children in the McAllen center are “unaccompanied.” She said the children are only kept there for 72 hours before being moved to another facility.
“They are possibly separated from aunts, uncles, grandparents,” said Kuster. “I think there still is an issue. Last year we met with an aunt who told us, the reason the child was not with her mother is that the mother had been murdered.
“It took our office five months to get her reunited with her family in New Hampshire,” said Kuster.
She emphasized that these people have sponsors in the United States, usually family members they can stay with while their asylum claims are processed.
The congresswoman said she brought “urgent bad news” from the latest visit to the border, which is that the facilities are dramatically overcrowded.
“There’s no place to lay down,” she said. Around 600 men and women are being held in 12 cells at the McAllen facility, which she estimated as around 12-by-12 feet. Many will wait 40-60 days for a hearing. Each cell has one toilet and no privacy.
“I believe this is a human rights violation,” said Kuster.
The facility is kept at 60°F to slow the spread of infectious diseases, and the lights are on 24 hours a day. “Migrants refer to it as the icebox,” she said. “It’s very disorienting and it’s cold.”
A further concern is the lack of sanitation. “The men did not have access to showers; they had not been able to brush their teeth since they arrived.”
For 600 people, she said 13 portable showers had recently been erected. There was no hot food; the migrants are fed cold sandwiches. Kuster said the facility was not equipped for medical treatment; a man with a rash on his face was waiting for treatment, and a quarantine area for meningitis had been set up.
“These people are exhausted,” she said. “They’ve been traveling for months.”
Although she said the visit was better than last year, she has fresh concerns about the overcrowding. “They’re trying to move them through quickly,” she said.
To that end, Congress recently passed an urgent supplemental appropriations bill for $4.6 billion to streamline the process and comply with current immigration law. The money will help hire case managers, more immigration judges, and create court spaces to process claims. For instance, she said they saw a new bank of computers that had just arrived to help agents process asylum claims.
“We met a federal judge and it’s perfectly obvious we need more federal judges and more processing,” said Kuster. “And there’s not enough staff on site; as you know recently they moved 200 from our northern Border Patrol.
“These families have a place to go,” she added. “They don’t need long term detention. We know from the data that 98 to 99% of them will show up for their hearings.”
Changing asylum rules
Asked about the administration’s changing the criteria for a credible fear of persecution – the criteria required for asylum to be granted — to exclude victims of domestic violence, Kuster said it remains a serious concern but the people she spoke to on this visit were mainly there because of gang violence.
“Their fear was related to gang violence: murder, rape, and their children being pulled into the gangs,” she said.
Kuster suggested changes to current immigration law could stem the tide of refugees. Laying the blame squarely on the Trump administration for cutting aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, where most of the migrants are coming from, she said much could be done in those three countries that would help.
“People should be entitled to seek asylum in their own country,” she explained. “But under current law they can’t do that. They’re not welcome to go to their own embassy in their country to make their asylum claim. If there were credible claims and we held the hearings in their country, they wouldn’t have to walk 2,000 miles across the desert.
“I’m a strong proponent of lawful immigration,” said Kuster. “My ancestors came from Scotland.”