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Lawmakers Leave Migrant Detention Facilities With Stories Of Despair


What did a visit by members of Congress reveal about U.S. border detention facilities? A group of lawmakers went yesterday to sites in Texas, and they emerged with a haunting photo of women in despair, along with descriptions of women in crowded conditions and short of clean water. One of the lawmakers was Norma Torres, a Democrat of California, and she is on the line. Congresswoman, welcome to the program.

NORMA TORRES: Yes. Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How much access did you get as you toured the facilities?

TORRES: Not very much access. There was a lot of reluctance on CBP to allow us to have a conversation with adults that were in detention cell facilities, that were in cages, and certainly they did not allow us to speak to the children.

INSKEEP: And yet it seems they told some of you something. What did you hear?

TORRES: Absolutely. Some of the women told members of Congress that they were not being treated well, that they were - there was no running water within the cells. And, you know, by the way, had members of Congress not insisted on going and stepping into those cells, we would have never found out, looking from the outside through a clear glass window, that there wasn't running water inside that facility, that the only running water that they had was coming out of a toilet.

INSKEEP: Representative Torres, the detail of the toilet water is so explosive - I mean, it's something that would kill people - that I have to just ask about that detail. Do they mean to say that they had to use a device that is a kind of combination sink and toilet in one fixture or did they mean literally being told to drink toilet water?

TORRES: They meant literally being told to drink water from the toilet, water that is sitting within a toilet bowl, and that's why the paper cups looks so disgusting.

INSKEEP: I'm a little surprised that conditions would appear so bad in a facility that the Border Patrol knew you were coming to visit - right? - or Customs and Border Protection knew you were coming to visit, right?

TORRES: Absolutely. And I don't expect border agents to be changing diapers. But I also don't expect the U.S. government to be holding toddlers in a jail facility. Who have we become?

INSKEEP: Did you understand some of the women in the shelters that you visited to be asylum-seekers, who claimed a legal right to be here?

TORRES: Yes. Some of the women talked about having left behind, you know, other family members who they were afraid who might also be victims to the criminal elements that they are escaping themselves. Some of it has been domestic violence.

But let me give you an example. There was a woman sitting with her 7-year-old child. She was waiting, sitting on a bench, waiting to be processed. I tried talking to her. I asked her how she felt. She said she was OK. She was very, very timid. The baby - the young child was clinging to her. I asked him, are you Superman? Are you Batman? You know, who are you? Trying to engage him. I asked her for permission to talk to him. I also told her that she did not have to speak to me if she did not want to, which she responded to me, I am afraid. I cannot talk to you in front of them.

INSKEEP: Having described these conditions, what do you blame them on? Do you blame Customs and Border Protection? Do you blame Congress for the amount of funding? Do you blame the situation? What is it?

TORRES: I blame the lack of training. I blame all of it. I blame, you know, these Trump Democrats who have pushed for a bill, a funding bill that ultimately gives a blank check, without any requirement of the CBP or ICE or anyone - or Homeland Security to do better and to treat people and certainly treat children as children. And that...

INSKEEP: I think you used a phrase there that may call for some clarification - you said Trump Democrats. Do you mean to say that there was this bipartisan bill that passed the Senate that didn't go as far in protecting migrants as you would like, and that is what has become law instead of a bill that would have gone farther, that was favored by many where you are in the House?

TORRES: Absolutely. I'm talking about a bill that was simply a blank check. I want to look at a facility and I want to see children being treated humanely. I don't want to see children sleeping on the floor, isolated families on the floor because they are too sick, and they have been quarantined, but yet the only thing that they have to cover themselves, to shield themselves from the cold and the (inaudible) are these aluminum foil type of blankets. That is not humane; that's outrageous.

INSKEEP: Norma Torres is a Democratic member of Congress from California. Thank you so much.

TORRES: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez has been listening with us. And Franco, what was she talking about there at the end?

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: I mean, this is an example of how explosive this issue has become. I mean, this has really divided not only Republicans and Democrats but Democrats themselves. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, she reluctantly - she said she reluctantly took up the Senate proposal to get the money to the children fastest as she can.

We should note that the Trump administration did acknowledge that conditions were not good. They said last week that they were running out of space, and they were running out of money. That's why they desperately needed that $4.6 billion package. And it's Representative Torres and others who felt that that money wasn't - pardon me. The protections of that money was not enough. They wanted...

INSKEEP: Because they didn't just want the money; they wanted new rules that would require Customs and Border Protection to take care of people differently.

ORDOÑEZ: Absolutely. And they also were very nervous about how the funds would eventually be misused. In your interview, she repeated blank check, blank check. That just shows how defensive and how they don't trust the administration won't redirect these funds to, for example, enforcement.

INSKEEP: And a bitter phrase for a Democrat to say of another Democrat, to call them a Trump Democrat at this moment in history.

ORDOÑEZ: I've never heard that term before, and it's pretty amazing, the state of the Democratic Party right now.

INSKEEP: Franco, thanks so much.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Franco Ordoñez. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.