Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., called for the leaders of border security agencies to face charges for "child abuse" Monday night as top Democratic lawmakers and presidential contenders tried to keep attention on the conditions in detention centers at the U.S.-Mexico frontier.
Nadler described the conditions as "inhuman" and "very disgusting" in an interview with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, adding that both state and federal laws were likely violated.
"Frankly, I think it's criminal," Nadler said. "There ought to be criminal prosecutions of some of the agency heads and some of the people for child abuse. This is clearly child abuse. It violates probably half a dozen laws."
Prosecutions of sitting federal agency heads for offenses unrelated to personal misconduct or corruption are exceedingly rare and can raise constitutional issues, especially if undertaken by state-level officials. The only agency head to face prosecution under President Barack Obama was former CIA Director David Petraeus, who received a two-year sentence of probation for illegally disseminating classified material.
Nadler's comments came after a dozen members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, toured border facilities where attorneys said they had found migrant children living in fetid, filthy conditions.
The Democrats delivered an emotional denunciation of what they saw inside the border facilities as protesters shouted that they didn't believe them.
"When we went into the cell, it was clear that the water was not running ... in fact, one of the women said that she was told by an agent to drink from the toilet," said Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, the twin brother of presidential candidate Julian Castro.
Lawmakers who toured the facilities shared their experiences widely on social media. Rep. Joe Kennedy, D-Mass., called them "jail-like. No way to keep a child or innocent human being." The head of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., said that "what we saw was appalling and disgusting."
Current and former immigration officials pushed back Tuesday at Ocasio-Cortez's high-profile accusations of cruel treatment at an El Paso border station, rejecting her claim that agents forced detainees to “drink out of the toilets” and insisting that their personnel “don’t treat people that way.”
“They are not drinking out of the toilet—no Border Patrol agent is going to make anyone drink out of the toilet,” former U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) director Tom Homan said on Fox News' “America’s Newsroom” Tuesday. “It’s just ridiculous on its face.”
Homan alleged that Ocasio-Cortez was “clearly, intentionally misinforming the American public" and added that "she’s lost all credibility."
The lawmaker's Texas visit came the same day as Trump signed a $4.6 billion border emergency aid package that Congress passed on Friday. The Democratic-led House had pushed for more restrictions on how the money could be used and stricter oversight but ultimately lost the battle.
Conditions at the border have become a key issue in the race for the Democrat nomination for president. On Tuesday, Cory Booker unveiled a comprehensive plan to "virtually eliminate immigrant detention" and expand protections for illegal immigrants through executive order -- bypassing Congress entirely -- "on day one of his presidency."
"When kids are being stripped away from their parents and held in cages, I will not wait for Congress to solve this crisis," Booker said in a statement announcing the plan. "On day one of my presidency, I will take immediate steps to end this administration’s moral vandalism."
That proposal alarmed some conservatives. Dan Cadman, a former ICE official and fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies think tank, told Fox News that Democrats wanted to "render it impossible for the government to detain anyone, anywhere, anytime in any facilities."
Cadman added that national security was at stake.
"The truth is that detention of illegal border crossers is a necessity for deterrence -- and critically important in order to cut the umbilical between smuggling and massive illegal entry of hundreds of thousands of unaccompanied alien minors and family units," he said. "Until that is done, the flow will continue unabated, billions of dollars more will flow into the hands of criminal cartels, and many more aliens will fall victim to those cartels, or physically succumb to the harsh circumstances attending their journey northward."
In a letter to President Trump late Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called for "immediate" action.
"The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) should immediately establish final plans, standards and protocols to protect the health and safety of individuals in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection," Pelosi said. "This includes protocols for medical assessments and medical emergencies; requirements for ensuring the provision of water, appropriate nutrition hygiene and sanitation needs; and standards for temporary holding facilities that adhere to the best practices for the care of children."
Pelosi continued with two additional requests, after noting that Vice President Mike Pence had refused to offer a definite timeline for resolving Democrats' concerns.
"The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) should ensure that no children remain longer than 90 days in influx shelters – a requirement that should be readily achievable as reliance on influx shelters wanes with the additional $2.9 billion provided to HHS," Pelosi added. "The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), to ensure accountability, should notify Congress within 24 hours of the death of any child in its care."
Fox News' Brooke Singman and The Associated Press contributed to this report.