Border patrol agents changing diapers. Local Democrat describes life in migrant detention

Sacramento Rep. Doris Matsui confirmed some of the worst accounts of the border patrol centers housing migrant men, women and children who’ve crossed over the southern border, after visiting two facilities in Texas last weekend.

“It was just really kind of surprising in a way you can’t steel yourselves for,” Matsui, a Democrat in her 9th term in Congress, told McClatchy in an interview. “In some cases it felt like a third world country on our side of the border.”

Matsui and a delegation of 19 other Democratic House members traveled to McAllen and Brownsville, Texas to visit Customs and Border Patrol processing centers as well as humanitarian organizations working with migrants seeking asylum in the United States. Matsui was born into a U.S. internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II. Her late husband, the former Congressman Bob Matsui, was also placed in one of the camps as a small child.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General released a report earlier this month that detailed “serious” overcrowding and squalid conditions in border patrol processing facilities in South Texas.

Among other things, Matsui said she saw children lined up inside of concrete cages, waiting to pick up a mat to rest on. Customs and Border Patrol told the members of Congress “they need the concrete cages for security,” she said.

“It was cold, they said they needed to keep it cold because of the smells and things like that,” Matsui added. “And also they keep the lights on all the time.”

The Democratic congresswoman said it was clear the border patrol agents “were not equipped” to handle the influx of migrants coming over the border, primarily families from Central America. The processing centers are meant as temporary holding places for the migrants, who are then released to local family or friends, turned over to long-term facilities managed by the Department of Health and Human Services, or sent back to their home country.

But the sheer numbers of people coming from Central America has overwhelmed the existing system, causing lengthy delays in processing migrants and keeping them detained in Border Patrol facilities not designed for such long-term residents.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan testified before a House committee Thursday that while the number of people attempting to cross the border is falling, “the border flows and custody situation remain beyond crisis level.”

“We are still seeing 2,500 crossing a day, mostly families,” McAleenan added.

The border patrol facilities Matsui visited “just did not have the individuals there to care for the people,” she told McClatchy. Agents there told the visiting members of Congress that they were sometimes forced to change the youngest detainees’ diapers overnight, when contract staff and nurses are not on the premises.

Babies need to be cared for, washed and changed,” Matsui said. “The border patrol, some of them are obviously fathers.”

In his testimony Thursday, McAleenan told members of Congress that the Homeland Security Department “has made significant strides in its efforts to secure the border and better protect the health and safety of migrants in our custody.”

And he noted with the emergency spending bill Congress passed last month to respond to the border crisis, Customs and Border Patrol “have constructed, outfitted and staffed four new facilities to enhance the conditions … with two more anticipated by the end of July.”

But McAleenan also rapped House Democrats for stalling that spending bill for several weeks. And he blamed the existing situation on Congress’ “failure to enact legislation that would have prevented and could still end this crisis.”

He and other Trump Administration officials say the U.S. needs to amend asylum laws they argue incentivize families to make the journey north from Central America.

House Democrats have dismissed that argument, pointing instead to conditions countries like El Salvador and Guatemala, which have some of the highest rates of violence in the world.

Matsui said she believes that the Homeland Security Department now has the necessary funds to address the humanitarian issues at border patrol facilities. “We should be able to do this in a way that’s more humane,” she said.

House Democrats, she added, plan to monitor closely how the money they sent to the agency is used.

The House is expected to take up legislation next week, introduced by Rep. Raul Ruiz of Palm Desert, to establish humanitarian standards for the people Customs and Border Patrol takes into custody. Among other things it would create a protocol for initial health screenings and require that detainees have access to at least one gallon of water, a “private, safe, clean and reliable toilet” and “a clean diaper changing facility.”

Matsui also said she plans to scrutinize the private contractors providing some of the care for detained migrants. “This happened so quickly they had to hire people from the outside,” Matsui said of the Homeland Security Department. “Right now we don’t have the sense that there is competence there.”

Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and policy for McClatchy’s California readers. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.