EL PASO, Texas — U.S. lawmakers who visited Texas border facilities on Monday described a “broken” and "horrifying" system of immigration detention at the nation's southern border where women in one cell were allegedly told to drink water from a toilet.
"We came today and we saw that the system is still broken," said U.S. congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Tex., to a crowd of media, immigration activists and protesters at a Clint, Texas, Border Patrol station.
He said the group of lawmakers met 15 to 20 mothers who had been detained at the Border Patrol Station in northeast El Paso "for over 50 days," he said. Some had been separated from their children, and the cell where they were held didn’t have running water to drink, he said.
Lawmakers said one of the women at the station alleged that border agents told her to drink water from the toilet.
A migrant mother's journey to her son: Woman says migrants drank toilet water at Texas holding center
U.S. Customs and Border Protection didn't immediately respond Monday to a request for comment on the allegations.
They also visited a facility for migrant children in El Paso called Casa Franklin, which is run by the nonprofit Southwest Key on behalf of the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement.
'Horrifying' and 'haunting'
The state and federal lawmakers — all Democrats — one by one tried to address reporters at a news conference outside the Clint facility, but they could barely be heard above the jeers of protesters who heckled them in Spanish and English.
The lawmakers visited two Border Patrol processing centers: the station in northeast El Paso where immigrant families are being held in a sprawling soft-sided tent facility, and in Clint, where unaccompanied minors have allegedly been held in unsafe, unsanitary conditions.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., described the experience on Twitter as “horrifying” and “haunting.”
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She told reporters at the news conference: “No child should ever be separated from their family. No woman should be locked up in a pen when they have done no harm to another human being. They should be given water. They should be given access to basic human rights.”
Detained women who spoke with the lawmakers “all began sobbing,” Ocasio-Cortez said on Twitter, “out of fear of being punished, out of sickness, out of desperation, lack of sleep, trauma, despair.”
Now I’m on my way to Clint, where the Trump admin was denying children toothpaste and soap.— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) July 1, 2019
This has been horrifying so far. It is hard to understate the enormity of the problem. We’re talking systemic cruelty w/ a dehumanizing culture that treats them like animals.
In June, dozens of attorneys who serve as watchdogs under a court case known as the Flores settlement — which governs how children must be treated in immigration detention — reported children in custody at Clint and elsewhere along the border were found dirty, sick and hungry.
Activists, protesters clash
Dueling protests ensued outside the Clint facility ahead of the news conference. Immigration activists chanted "No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA" as those protesting the activists held signs saying "start deporting."
Temperatures climbed above 100 degrees. The El Paso County Sheriff's Office deployed about a dozen deputies "just to make sure no one gets hurt," said Patrol Commander Ryan Urrutia. He estimated the crowd at about 60 people.
A small farming town southeast of El Paso, Clint has become the site of multiple protests and political rallies calling attention to the conditions in which migrant children have allegedly been held.
Diane Otten, a Clint resident, carried a handmade sign at Monday's protest blaming the conditions the detained children face on "their parents, our Congress and the Mexican cartels."
"Our homeland security has been backed into a corner and Congress won't take care of the problem to keep these children from coming here," she said.
University of Texas at El Paso student Cristy Velez held a colorful sign with images of migrant children who have died in federal custody.
"The conditions in these camps are horrific," she said. "Their basic human needs are not being met."
Before the tour
Last week, Congress approved $4.6 billion in emergency funding to pay for humanitarian aid at the border. An earlier House version of the bill laid out standards of care for immigration detention centers, but that provision was scrapped in the bipartisan bill that passed.
The bill provides nearly $209 million to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to pay for the transportation of unaccompanied migrant children, detainee medical care and alternatives to detention. It also earmarks $65 million to beef up the overtaxed immigration court system, including hiring more judges and building more court space.
On Sunday, presidential candidate and former congressman Beto O'Rourke held a rally at the Clint Border Patrol station to protest what he called President Donald Trump's inhumane policies toward children. Presidential candidate and former San Antonio mayor Julian Castro visited the Clint facility Saturday.
This article originally appeared on El Paso Times: 'Broken' and 'horrifying': AOC, Joaquin Castro, lawmakers visit Texas border facilities