Controversy continued on Saturday over Mike Pence’s visit to a detention facility on the Texas border, in which the vice-president said appalling conditions described by a pool reporter were “tough stuff” but placed the blame for the migrant crisis on Democrats in Congress.
Families fleeing violence, poverty and drought in Central America have been coming to the US in record numbers, peaking in May when the border patrol made nearly 133,000 apprehensions. Detention facilities quickly filled up, forcing many migrants to languish in unsuitable facilities much longer than the 72 hours required by law.
Donald Trump said on Friday he had dispatched Pence to the border to dispel reports of dire conditions at migrant detention centers.
“They’re crowded because we have a lot of people but they’re in good shape,” the president said, complaining about supposedly “phony” reporting by the New York Times.
Pence visited two facilities: the first holding families, the second holding men behind metal fencing.
The caged migrants were at the McAllen border patrol station. When detainees saw reporters arrive many began shouting, saying they had been there for 40 days or more and were hungry and wanted to brush their teeth. Agents guarding the cages were wearing face masks.
The press pool covering the vice-president was removed within 90 seconds.
In a tweet, Josh Dawsey of the Washington Post wrote: “VP saw 384 men sleeping inside fences, on concrete w[ith] no pillows or mats. They said they hadn’t showered in weeks, wanted toothbrushes, food. Stench was overwhelming. [Customs and Border Protection] said they were fed regularly, could brush daily [and] recently got access to shower (many hadn’t for 10-20 days).”
Dawsey’s reporting spread rapidly on social media, as did news coverage of the visit.
Michael Banks, the agent in charge of the McAllen station, said the men were allowed to brush their teeth once a day and were given deodorant after showering, but conceded many had not showered for 10 or 20 days. He also said the longest any man had been there was 32 days.
“Some men told CNN’s Pam Brown and me they had” been there longer, Dawsey wrote.
He also wrote: “Heat was sweltering. CBP said it was air conditioned.”
The fenced cages were so crowded it was impossible for all the men to lie on the concrete, he added.
A statement from Pence’s office said it had “specifically instructed CBP to not clean up or sanitize the facility beyond what is routine so the American people could see how serious the crisis at our border is.”
Dawsey said: “VP’s office also says Pence wanted press to see the McAllen facility but that secret service had concerns about him going inside.”
At a subsequent news conference, Pence said: “Look, this is tough stuff.”
He added: “I knew we’d see a system that is overcrowded. It’s overwhelmed and that’s why Congress has to act.”
Coverage of the visit is sure to spark new criticism of conditions facing migrants in US facilities. The scene resembled what an inspector general described in a scathing report delivered last week based on trips to border patrol facilities near the Rio Grande, including the station Pence visited. The report quoted a senior government manager as calling the situation a “ticking time bomb”.
The Trump administration has also been under fire over conditions inside a border patrol station in Clint, Texas, where children were found in filthy conditions and keeping watch over younger kids amid the overcrowding. Five migrant children have died since late last year after being detained by the government.
Earlier in his tour, Pence visited another detention facility. In a series of large white tents, most detainees were lying on kindergarten-like mats with thin, tinfoil-like blankets. Many families there were to be released within 72 hours. Pence told reporters every family he spoke to there said they were being well cared for.
“And while we hear some Democrats in Washington DC referring to US Customs and Border facilities as ‘concentration camps’, what we saw today was a facility that is providing care that every American would be proud of,” Pence said.
After visiting the second site, Pence had a more sober assessment.
“What you saw today was a very clean facility where people were being detained indoors,” he said, “and then you saw a temporary facility that was constructed because this facility is overcrowded.
“And we can’t keep people in a cell beyond what the rules and regulations allow for, but everyone in that temporary facility is getting healthcare, they’re getting hygiene and CBP is doing their level best in an overcrowded environment and a difficult environment to address this issue, but Congress has got to act.”
He said he had called for more Department of Homeland Security spending, including a $4.6bn humanitarian aid package that Congress passed recently.
A group of congressional Democrats was due in the area on Saturday.
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