House lawmakers on Wednesday heard emotional testimony from a Guatemalan woman seeking asylum in the United States whose two-year-old daughter contracted a lung infection while at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Texas and died shortly after their release.
Yazmin Juárez, who is suing the federal government over her daughter Mariee’s death, detailed for the House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties the treatment she received from immigration officials at the detention center. She blamed improper medical care, “terrible and inadequate” living conditions and a culture of neglect at the migrant holding facilities along the border for her daughter’s death.
“We came to the U.S. in the hope of finding a better life for us,” Juárez said through a translator. “Unfortunately that did not happen. Instead my baby girl died slowly and painfully just months before her third birthday.”
Juárez added: “I am here today because the world needs to know what is going on in ICE detention centers.”
Juárez’s testimony comes after months of infighting in Washington between Democrats and Republicans over the humanitarian crisis on the southern border.
Democrats have slammed the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration and blamed White House policies for exacerbating the border crisis.
Democratic outrage has been fueled by lawmakers who reported overcrowded, unsanitary conditions at south Texas detention facilities they visited last week, observations that a report by the Homeland Security Department's inspector general seemed to confirm. In addition, a Facebook group for Border Patrol agents surfaced that included flippant posts about migrants perishing in U.S. custody and references to two female House Democrats as "hoes."
“Many migrants coming to our borders are escaping violence or threats of violence,” Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., the subcommittee’s chair said. “They make their claim for asylum, the right they have under American and international law - but they’re treated as criminals.”
Republican lawmakers, who largely remained silent during the questioning of Juárez following her testimony, did not dispute that there are inadequate facilities to house migrants along the border. But they argued that ICE and Customs and Border Patrol agents are stretched thin amid the flood of migrants coming into the country and they lack the resources to properly deal with the crisis.
“CBP has performed 3,000 rescues this year,” said Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee. “CBP is out there saving lives.”
Roy also slammed Democrats’ assertions that migrant children were being kept in cages, saying that Democratic lawmakers are using the claim to score “political points.”
“I’ve travelled to the border many times and I’ve not seen kids in cages,” he said. “I’ve not seen a single cage in the way it’s being depicted.”
The public has been barraged in recent weeks by a slew of headlines and searing images from the border: An immigrant father and daughter drowned in the Rio Grande. Reports that infants, children and teens have been locked up without adequate food and water. Revelations that five children have died in Border Patrol custody since December.
The Homeland Security Department's internal watchdog provided new details last week about severe overcrowding in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, the busiest corridor for illegal crossings, noting children at three facilities had no access to showers and that some children under 7 had been held in jammed centers for more than two weeks. Some cells were so cramped that adults were forced to stand for days on end.
Government inspectors described an increasingly dangerous situation, both for migrants and agents, with escape attempts and detainees clogging toilets with socks to get released during maintenance. A "ticking time bomb," in the words of one facility manager.
Customs and Border Protection reported in mid-May that it had 16,000 people in its custody, many in cells equipped with nothing more than concrete benches and an exposed toilet. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, whose facilities are built for longer-term detention, houses more than 40,000 people.
When government inspectors visited the Rio Grande Valley last month, the Border Patrol had some 8,000 detainees in custody in just five holding facilities, with 3,400 held longer than the 72 hours generally permitted. More than 800 children had been in the facilities for longer than 72 hours, with many there more than a week.
The president has vigorously defended the federal immigration officials, saying they "are not hospital workers, doctors or nurses," and made no concessions about the conditions at detention centers. The administration has long said federal agencies trying to cope with the growing flow of migrants across the southern border were overwhelmed and based its request for the $4.6 billion border package that Congress approved last month on the need to improve those facilities.
"Many of these illegals aliens are living far better now than where they came from, and in far safer conditions," Trump wrote.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.