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Q&A: California congresswoman describes tour of Border Patrol detention center

Sens. Charles Schumer and Robert Menendez
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), center right, and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), center left, leave an immigration detention center Friday in McAllen, Texas.
(Joel Martinez / Monitor)
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As U.S. Customs and Border Protection faces growing criticism over migrant detention conditions, acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan and dozens of members of Congress visited the agency’s largest migrant detention facility Friday in McAllen, Texas.

Among them was Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-San Pedro), who serves on the House Committee on Homeland Security. It was Barragan’s fifth visit to the agency’s detention facilities this year, following reports that migrant children and families were held in squalid conditions. She spoke to The Times afterward. Her remarks have been edited for length.

During your visit today, you spoke with several migrant women, one of whom showed you her daughter’s U.S. passport — did the Border Patrol explain why the girl was being detained?

We just heard the [U.S.] citizen girl has been released with her mother. We’re super glad to hear that.

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I saw this woman [from Ecuador] and she started talking to me and I said, “How old is your daughter?” And she says 13 and she’s a U.S. citizen. I said, “Where was she born?” and she said New York. I said, “Do you have any proof?” and she brought out her passport. Just then the officer came over and she slipped it under the door. And the mom was just saying “Don’t take my daughter away from me.” The room smelled, and it was not the kind of place you want any American citizen in.

It’s good news but it does raise other questions for me: Do we have other U.S. citizens in there? When I said she’s an American citizen, the only response I got was “We can look into a case if you want us to.”

You also spoke with some migrant children, including a boy who you said had a stomach ache — did the Border Patrol help him?

There was a little boy, he looked like he was about 7, his eyes were glassy and he looked really sad. We said, “What’s wrong?” and he said, “My stomach hurts.” He was sitting on a bench where the sign on the wall said consulate, so he was waiting to talk to the consulate. We had a lot of restrictions on talking to them.

You posted some videos on Twitter from inside the detention center, which the Border Patrol has not allowed media and other members of Congress to do. Were you allowed to bring your phone in? How did agents react to you filming?

They made a statement beforehand about no photos, no videos. We came prepared this time. We talked to one of the members who went last time and said, “How did you take pictures?” and she went to House counsel’s office and got an opinion. So we got that, and the chief who took us around said if you take photos, don’t show faces. So we tried to sort of work with that.

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In one of the videos, one of the migrant men detained behind a glass partition held up his fingers to indicate he had been there for 35 days. How long did the Border Patrol agents say migrants were being held there?

The agents tell you the average person is here only a couple days. But when you start asking how long, they said 80 days someone was held there…. One guy was there 55 days from El Salvador, another guy said 23 days from Nicaragua. I talked to a guy who was there from El Salvador for 46 days who had relatives in the U.S.

Why did Border Patrol agents say you couldn’t talk to the migrant men?

They didn’t provide a reason. They just said they wouldn’t open the door; they had a safety concern. [The men] tried to scream through the door.

Do detained migrants have access to water and other basics?

When I saw the water coolers outside [the cells] I said, “Hey, can I get a cup?” Then they said we’ve got to go, we have to move on. I said, “I want to taste it myself.” So they brought me a cup when we were outside and I said, “No, I want to pour it myself.” It tasted — my stomach wasn’t used to it. They said it was from the hose and it tasted like it, it didn’t settle well.

They go out of their way to show you the supplies, but when I was on another visit the women told me they were only given a diaper a day and their babies got diaper rash. Today I noticed right next to the diapers in the supply room was the diaper rash cream.


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Molly Hennessy-Fiske has been a staff writer since 2006 in Washington, Los Angeles, Texas and overseas. A graduate of Harvard College, she spent a year as Middle East bureau chief before returning as Houston bureau chief.