Top Democrats on Thursday introduced protections and safeguards for migrants held in federal custody in the wake of recent reports of overcrowded and harrowing conditions at migrant detention centers near the U.S.-Mexico border run by U.S. Border Patrol and Protection (CBP) and other federal agencies.
The legislation, called "Stop Cruelty to Migrant Children Act," was spearheaded by Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York and Jeff Merkley of Oregon.
It calls to "end all family separations, except when authorized by a state court or child welfare agency" or when CBP agents and an independent child specialist "agree that a child is a trafficking victim, not the child of an accompanying adult or is in danger of abuse or neglect."
The measure would ensure children have access to legal counsel inside all detention, holding and border facilities, and it would provide funding to non-profit assistance centers and other providers caring for migrants released from DHS custody. It states children "cannot be turned away or delayed from crossing the border."
The legislation has 37 co-sponsors, including all of the seven Senate Democrats vying to take on President Donald Trump in 2020 — Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California, Amy Klobuchar Minnesota, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
The bill would require CBP officials to conduct a "basic medical assessment" of all children taken into custody by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) within one hour. A "full medical evaluation" would be required within 48 hours. U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps should be trained by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and dispatched to border patrol stations, CBP processing facilities and ORR shelters, the legislation states.
It would further require border patrol agents to provide "three meals that meet the Department of Agriculture's Nutrition Standards for School Meals" and "basic hygiene products, including soap, a tooth brush with a toothpaste, a change of clothes, towel, access to showers and toilets, feminine hygiene products, diapers, diaper rash ointment and baby wipes." Facilities also need to be equipped with "appropriate temperature control and ventilation" and ensure detained migrants are given access to previously-prescribed medications.
The measure also requires CBP to adhere to detention standards set by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and ORR.
Under the bill, ORR, ICE and CBP facilities would be required to report to Congress weekly on the total number of children in custody "broken out by age, by custody agency, by detention location, by average length of stay," as well as the number of children separated from families. The agencies would also need to report the number of pregnant women in custody "broken out by custody agency, by detention location, average duration of MPP (migrant protection protocols) wait time in Mexico."
A monthly summary of the data would then be made public on the DHS website.
The bill comes one day after the House Oversight and Reform Committee heard an emotional testimony from Yazmin Juárez, an asylum seeker from Guatemala whose 19-month old daughter died in 2018, weeks after the pair was released from an ICE detention center. Juárez tearfully told lawmakers the details of her daughter's death, saying the toddler had contracted a deadly lung infection during a 20-day stay at a detention facility in Dilley, Texas.
"My daughter is gone. The people in charge of these facilities and caring for these little angels are not supposed to let things like this happen," she said through tears. "We're here to find a better life."
Earlier in the day, the panel's chairman, Rep. Elijah Cummings, called the callous treatment of migrant children at border facilities "government-sponsored child abuse" at a hearing titled "Kids in Cages."
Cummings has called on Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan to testify before the panel amid mounting outrage over the growing crisis at the nation's southern border, which has appeared to increase after a scathing inspector general's found "dangerous overcrowding" and "prolonged detention of children" at U.S. facilities and a secret Facebook group in which some border patrol agents joked about migrant deaths.
Trump has called recent reports detailing the mistreatment of migrants and unsanitary conditions at border patrol facilities a "hoax," despite witness accounts and photos.
McAleenan, who has been directing the White House's response to the surge of migrants arrivals at the southern border, has agreed to testify before the committee on July 18.
In an appearance before Congress in May, McAleenan argued that it would be difficult to prevent more deaths of migrant children in U.S. custody if his department did not receive additional funding, as well as the authority to deal with the surge of migrant families heading toward the nation's southern border. A half-dozen migrant children have died during or shortly after being held in federal immigration custody in the past year, although existing totals are likely to be underestimates.
"People keep dying, sir. People keep dying, and so this is obviously more than a question of resources," Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., said in response to the acting secretary's statement at the time. "Congress has been more than willing to provide the resources and work with you to address the security and humanitarian concerns, but at this point, with five kids that have died, 5,000 separated from their families, I feel like — and the evidence is really clear — that this is intentional. It's intentional. It's a policy choice being made on purpose by this administration, and it’s cruel and inhumane."
The inspector general's probe earlier this month found that roughly 8,000 migrants were being held at the five Border Patrol facilities visited by the watchdog, with 3,400 held longer than the 72 hours generally permitted under CBP standards. Of the 2,669 children at the facilities, 826 had been held longer than the permitted 72 hours.
Children at three of the five facilities had no access to showers and limited access to a change of clothes. Two facilities had not provided children access to hot meals, another requirement under CBP standards. Some adults at the facilities were held in standing-room only conditions for a week and at another, some were held more than a month in overcrowded cells.
Pictures included in the report showed migrants at the facilities crowded behind fences and sleeping on the concrete floor with aluminum blankets.
Rep. Joaquin Castro, the twin brother of Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro and the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, visited some detention facilities last week. After his visit, the congressman called America's border patrol system "broken."
"And part of the reason it stays broken is because it's kept secret. The American people must see what is being carried out in their name," Castro wrote on Twitter, before sharing images of the conditions inside of the facilities, which he surreptitiously recorded during his visit.
The lawmaker said women were "crammed into a prison-like cell with one toilet, but no running water to drink from or wash their hands with" at a facility in El Paso, Texas. Many of those women, he said, "had not bathed for 15 days."
"Some had been separated from children, some had been held for more than 50 days. Several complained they had not received their medications, including one for epilepsy," he added.
Castro described the tents at the facility in Clint as "dark and surrounded by chain link fences." He called the showers "dank, dirty and only too small in number for the hundreds of people there just a few weeks ago." He said families at the facility ate ramen noodles on the floor.
"All Americans must help to change this system," Castro tweeted, alongside a picture of migrant women.
Despite the growing public outcry and documented unsanitary conditions at the nation's border, it remains unclear if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will allow the bill to get a vote on the Senate floor.
"If Democrats were in the majority, we'd move this legislation immediately," Schumer said Thursday. "We're not, and the question looms: Will Leader McConnell stand up for the children and work with us to pass these new standards into law?"
"What's clear to me is this: The American public want this, and what the Trump administration is doing to children and families fleeing violence, murder and extortion is wrong, cruel, nasty and — simply put — un-American," he continued. "I've never seen anything like this."
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, one of the bill's co-sponsors, cited a viral image of a man and a child who died while trying to cross the Rio Grande at Thursday's press conference.
The disturbing and heartbreaking photo showed a 23-month-old tucked under her father's shirt, her right arm around his neck as they laid face down on a muddy shoreline. The picture, which was published late last month, has provoked international outcry, empathy and called attention to the danger many face when they try to cross into the U.S.
"If you don't feel pain, if you weren't appalled by these images, then something is dead or dying in your heart and in the heart of America," Hirono said Thursday amid tears.