EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — A congressional delegation’s two-day visit to the border ended on a sour note Friday, as members of the House Democratic Caucus complained of restricted access to a migrant holding center in El Paso.
The tour of the facility was arranged a week in advance, but full access to the detainees was denied at the last moment, prompting the congresspeople to threaten to leave. In the end, conditional access was granted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), they said.
“I’ve been to detention facilities all over the world. There is no such thing as a valid visit if you cannot speak privately to the detainees so you can ask, how are you being treated? if you have the warden or prison official standing there, you’re not going to get an honest answer,” said U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ). “Detention officials were standing right there and a couple of times they interrupted to try to explain what they thought was going on. So, the one thing I can say with confidence about conditions at this facility is that we can say nothing with confidence because we were not provided with access that is required to be able to evaluate this.”
U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), the El Paso congresswoman who arranged the visit by more than 20 members of the House Democratic Caucus, said the group also was prevented from talking to Indian migrants who have been on a weeks-long hunger strike.
“We spoke to their lawyers and they said yes. We were denied that ability because (ICE officials) said it was too short notice. We didn’t give more notice because people get pulled out all the time. My fear was that the hunger strikers would be moved somewhere else,” Escobar said.
Like Malinowski, she expressed frustration at the limited access to detainees. “I’m frustrated, not with the personnel but with the leadership and the policy,” she said. “This was not a ‘gotcha!’ moment.. We want transparency so we can do our jobs.”
Malinowski echoed his support for federal officials on the front lines of the ongoing migrant surge. “We just voted for a supplemental emergency appropriations bill. We gave basically everything that the administration asked for including funding for ICE,” he said. “I voted for that, I had people demonstrating outside my congressional office because I voted to support these guys, and (today) we were not treated with the respect that having 5 percent of the U.S. Congress down here deserves.”
On Thursday, the Democrats visited shelters in Juarez and met with various government officials on both sides of the border. On Friday, they visited Health and Human Services facilities where child migrants are held, the Annunciation house boarding center on the East Side and various community and business leaders.
Escobar said business leaders continue to worry about wait times at border crossings, which have been impacted by the temporary reassignment of bridge inspectors to migrant processing facilities.
U.S. Rep. Gil Cisneros (D-California), said the visit made him realize that “we’re basically trying to push our problem to the Mexican government.” He was referring to the Migrant Protection Protocol program that makes thousands of asylum seekers wait for their day in court not in El Paso, but in Mexico.
Escobar said that her intention in bringing a series of congressional delegations to El Paso is that her fellow lawmakers can see the migrant problem for themselves and make informed decisions.