Texas Republican rejects Dems’ criticism of Homestead facility for migrant kids

Young girls rest after playing soccer at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children, Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019, in Homestead, Florida.
Young girls rest after playing soccer at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children, Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019, in Homestead, Florida. AP

Texas Republican Rep. Michael Burgess on Wednesday said the conditions he witnessed at a Homestead, Florida holding facility for migrant children were nothing like the “prison-like” experience his Democratic colleagues have described.

“I don’t speak a lot of Spanish but I speak enough to ask, ‘How are you feeling?’ And universally, I was told by the kids, who were all smiles and thumbs-up, ‘Bueno,’” Burgess told the Star-Telegram

Burgess, an ally of President Donald Trump, said he was asked by the Health and Human Services Department to attend the tour of the facility with Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro and Florida Reps. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala — all Democrats.

Democrats have grown increasingly critical of the holding facilities after Trump instituted a “zero-tolerance’’ policy requiring that children be separated from their families as they tried to enter the United States for asylum in April 2018. That policy was later reversed amid criticism.

After the visit, Castro, Mucarsel-Powell and Shalala held a press conference where they advocated for the Homestead facility to be closed. Mucarsel-Powell called the conditions “troubling” and “difficult to walk through.”

“It’s like we had been on different planets,” Burgess said of the Democrats’ accounts of the facility. “They’re down there saying these facilities are terrible they ought to be closed… and that’s just not true.”

Burgess said he was disinvited from that press conference, after originally being asked to attend. A Democratic staffer in charge of planning the event confirmed that Burgess was asked to not join.

At a detention facility in Tornillo, TX, immigrant children are seen eating, coloring and playing soccer in this video from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released on June 21, 2018. (Video contains no audio)

Burgess is a senior member of the House panel that oversees the Office of Refugee Resettlement, and has spent years working to improve their facilities.

That subcommittee held hearings on OOR during the height of the child migrant crisis in 2014, during which Burgess, a doctor before he ran for Congress, pushed for better medical treatment at the holding facilities.

He said Democrats on the visit were naive about how much better the conditions in Homestead were compared to facilities at that time, when children didn’t see doctors and were released into the public with little-to-no screening for disease.

“I’ve been to a number of ORR facilities in the last five years… Things are so much better than they were in 2014,” said Burgess.

The Trump Administration removed young migrants from a holding facility in Tornillo, Texas, last month after watchdogs flagged concerns about the safety of the minors who are fleeing violence in their home countries in Central America.

Critics of the facilities are now looking at Homestead, which is holding 1,600 young people.

Burgess has proposed cutting foreign aid to Central American countries for each of their children that shows up at the U.S. border, as a way to get the countries to help stop them from coming.

He argues that the facilities are keeping the young people safe while officials screen the people they’ll be sent to live with.

“These are shelters, and they are providing much more than shelter for these youngsters,” said Burgess, who added that all the lawmakers on the trip spoke with children at the facility.

“The time that they’re staying in the facilities is longer than it was in 2014; some people point to that as a criticism of the Trump Administration,” said Burgess. “But I would reference my trips in 2014 and 2015… I was horrified that there kids were being sent off to families and no one had done even a cursory background check to find out if the people they were sending the kids to were really who they said they were.”

Andrea Drusch is the Washington Correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She is a Corinth, Texas, native and graduate of the Bob Schieffer School of Journalism at Texas Christian University. She returns home frequently to visit family, get her fix of Fuzzy’s Tacos and cheer on the Horned Frogs.