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Congress Members Look for Solutions After Touring Border Detention Facilities

Charles SchumerCharles Schumer
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., conducts a news conference after the Senate Policy luncheons in the Capitol on Tuesday, July 16, 2019.Tom Williams—CQ Roll Call

About two dozen Congress members toured border detention facilities in McAllen, Texas, on Friday, further shining a spotlight on the embattled Customs and Border Protection agency.

A group of Democratic senators that included Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Bob Menenedez (D-N.J.) made up one contingent. The other was a bi-partisan group of moderate-leaning representatives called the Problem Solvers Caucus. Both groups left the sites indicating they could legislatively resolve issues that have led to overcrowding and unsanitary conditions in the facilities, without indicating when their proposals would be developed.

I’ve seen some modest improvements since my last visit,” said Representative Dean Phillips (D-Ill.). “But at the end of the day, no one can rest until we know that the kids are being treated in a more humane way.”

Conditions at CBP centers along the southern border have wreaked havoc in Washington, D.C.. Over the past month, the agency was slammed because of a scathing watchdog report and articles of a secret Facebook group on which border agents made sexist and racist comments.

That havoc bled into Congress, where $4.6 billion in emergency funding meant to relieve pressures on detention centers and provide aid to child detainees was passed with few restrictions, stoking fiery public divisions among progressive Democrats and moderates, including the Problem Solvers Caucus. 

All the while, officials continued visiting the border centers, further drawing attention to overcrowded, unsanitary, and chaotic facilities for adults and children, that some senators called shameful.

“They tried to make things look better the day before [we came]. Four hundred people were taken out of one facility yesterday,” said Schumer at a press conference after the Friday visit, in which he blamed the conditions on the President’s policies. “But even with that, it’s awful the conditions these people were placed in.”

The latest policy moves focus on asylum, whose claimant numbers are increasing. The latest report, from 2017, indicates that the number of applicants has more than doubled since 2014. Venezuelans make up the greatest number of asylees with claims considered valid by asylum officers, with Central American migrants also increasing.

Schumer indicated support for a plan that would allow immigrants to apply for asylum from their home country, which he thinks will alleviate the crowding issue at the border. Currently, Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are creating a proposal reflecting that.

“We have a solution that can work. It’s a horrible trek here. Let them apply for asylum in their home countries. Things can be fairer and easier,” Schumer said in a press conference following his visit. 

Meanwhile, the House representatives steered clear of details, promising to begin discussions in September after the Congressional recess. They pinpointed similar issues that the CBP is struggling with, including the Flores settlement, which requires immigrants who are minors to be kept in humane conditions and released from CBP within 72 hours (which has been reportedly violated for some detainees); asylum; and depleting resources.

The Trump administration has released its own fix.

Just one week before these Congressional visits, the Trump administration issued a new interim asylum rule that would decrease the number of Central and South American immigrants by requiring asylum seekers to apply for asylum in a country that they travel through before reaching the U.S. border.

The restriction is not the first proposed by the administration. An earlier attempt that would have denied asylum to anyone crossing the border outside of a legal port of entry was blocked in federal court. This recent effort has been legally challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union, Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Center for Constitutional Rights.

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