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EL PASO, Texas — Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called the conditions at U.S. migrant detention facilities “horrifying” in an interview Monday evening and doubled down on her comparisons of the situation at the border to World War II.
“Are we headed to fascism? Yes. I don’t think there’s a question,” the congresswoman told Yahoo News hours after she toured the detention facilities run by Customs and Border Protection. “If you actually take the time to study, and to look at the steps, and to see how government transforms under authoritarian regimes, and look at the political decisions and patterns of this president, the answer is yes.”
Last month Ocasio-Cortez sparked controversy when she described the migrant detention facilities as “concentration camps on our southern border.” Her comment drew an immediate backlash from critics who accused her of trivializing Nazi concentration camps, while others, including some Holocaust survivors and scholars, said the comparison was a valid one.
The freshman Democratic lawmaker from New York refused to back down from that comparison, and in her conversation with Yahoo News, Ocasio-Cortez argued that many things about President Trump echo that dark period in history.
She described a chaotic situation during Monday’s congressional tour, including one site visit where “s*** hit the fan” over what she described as “disrespectful” conduct by CBP staff, such as one officer who tried to take a selfie with the congresswoman, even as the lawmakers were not allowed to have cameras.
The incident led her to believe the agency has systematically “lost control,” she said.
Ocasio-Cortez also had harsh words for the “horrible Democrats” who voted for a bill to provide $4.5 billion in funding to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and CBP. She laid blame for the humanitarian crisis squarely at the feet of the president.
“This is completely engineered by him,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
Trump has repeatedly argued that Democrats are to blame for the immigration crisis because they have not made an immigration reform deal with congressional Republicans. He has also claimed he did not begin the child separation policy. While some children were detained separately from accompanying adults after crossing the border under previous administrations because of a lack of familial relationship or criminal records, the “zero tolerance” policy introduced by Trump led to unprecedented mass separations.
Ocasio-Cortez holds Trump responsible for the conditions that migrants are being kept in, and argues that he has contributed to the factors causing immigrants from Central America to leave the region in growing numbers.
“We withdrew U.S. aid to those areas that was intended to stabilize those areas,” said Ocasio-Cortez. “It deepened and exacerbated all of the crises that are already happening, causing a flood of people to try to escape these horrifying conditions. So we are contributing to the surge in the first place. We’re engineering it, so that’s coming to our border.”
Earlier this year Trump announced he would cut aid to Central America, claiming the countries there were not doing enough to stop the flow of migrants to the United States. U.S. assistance to the region has already decreased by 20 percent since 2016, according to the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition.
Ocasio-Cortez also blamed the Trump administration for contributing to the poor, overcrowded conditions at CBP facilities by not using available space to house migrants at facilities run by the Department of Health and Human Services. According to her, if Trump “really cared about human lives,” he would declare a national emergency to get additional funds to improve conditions at migrant shelters.
CBP and HHS did not respond to requests for comment.
“He declared a national emergency to move funds to build a wall,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “If he actually cared about these kids’ lives, he could have snapped his fingers and done that easily to get them the care that they needed.”
While she has plenty of criticism on Trump’s performance, Ocasio-Cortez said she has no message for the president.
“What do I want to say to him directly? I have never had any desire to say anything to him. I just haven’t,” she said.
Last week the House of Representatives passed a bill to provide about $4.5 billion to CBP and ICE. The legislation included provisions to provide supplies and medical services for migrants. It was supported by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and swing-district Democrats known as “frontliners.” A bipartisan group called the Problem Solvers Caucus worked to block language some more liberal members attempted to have added to the bill that explicitly called for the protection of migrant children and cut funds to ICE. Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives opposed the bill. She accused Pelosi of having “lost control of the caucus” and said the Problem Solvers Caucus “thinks that immigrants don’t matter.”
“They pushed through with the help of the Democrats in the Problem Solvers Caucus a completely lacking of accountability $5 billion to a system and to a culture of people that we know is rotted at its core,” Ocasio-Cortez said of the bill.
Her staunch progressivism and willingness to take on members of her own party and Trump has made Ocasio-Cortez one of the most visible political figures in Washington since she was elected last year. Her trip to the border on Monday was part of a delegation of Democratic members of Congress. They visited several facilities in the El Paso area where migrants are being held, including some children who have been separated from their families.
Afterward, the group spoke to reporters and said they witnessed “inhumane” conditions including a lack of running water, overcrowding, and migrants with serious medical conditions who did not have access to medicine. Ocasio-Cortez told Yahoo News the situation was particularly troubling since CBP was aware the congressional delegation was coming at least four days in advance.
“No matter how nefarious you may be or how generous you may be, the incentive would be to put your best foot forward and to represent the operation as efficient, and effective, and controlled as possible,” said Ocasio-Cortez. “If this was their best behavior today, what that tells me is that the conditions are far more horrifying than even what we saw.”
Members of the press were not allowed to accompany the congressional delegation. However, some of the claims made by Ocasio-Cortez and the other Democrats echo a report written last month by the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees CBP. That report, which was obtained by NBC News, described the results of a “spot inspection” conducted at a Border Patrol facility in El Paso that found alarming conditions including “dangerous overcrowding,” with some detainees being “held in standing-room only conditions for days or weeks.”
As Ocasio-Cortez recounted the trip to the border, her outrage was apparent, but she spoke in measured tones. The words rushed out of her and she tried to paint pictures with her hands, seemingly eager to convey every aspect of the day’s events as quickly as possible.
Her day began with “bungling” as the group visited Casa Franklin, a shelter in downtown El Paso that houses about 70 migrant children and is run by Southwest Key, a nonprofit that has received contracts from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement. As Ocasio-Cortez and the other members of Congress went into the facility, a staffer asked to see each of their IDs.
“Halfway through, they started really feeling how inappropriate it was, and then they just stopped,” Ocasio-Cortez recounted. “So they checked half the members’ IDs and then they were like, ‘OK, just come inside.’”
At Casa Franklin, Ocasio-Cortez said the conditions were “fine.” But she thought a briefing the delegation received from the shelter’s staff was “bizarre,” because they said children coming to the facility from the CBP stations are in good health. “To say that these kids ... were fine and not traumatized, it ... raised alarm bells,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
A spokesperson for Southwest Key declined to comment on record.
After Casa Franklin, Ocasio-Cortez and the other Democrats visited another shelter and a Border Patrol station where some migrants are being held. According to Ocasio-Cortez, at the first facility some things were “off,” but she felt the staff there was clearly “trying” and “doing their best.”
The Border Patrol station was a different story. “The El Paso Border Patrol Station 1 was ... easily the most horrible of them all.”
Ocasio-Cortez was particularly dismayed given that the staff knew members of Congress and high-ranking CBP officials were present and theoretically should have been on their “best behavior.”
“That one was shocking not just because of the conditions, but because of how flagrant the CBP officials were in front of us,” she said.
According to her, when the members arrived at the facility, they had to turn over their phones due to strict prohibitions on photographing detainees. The group was also told they were not permitted to speak to the migrants.
During this discussion, Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, asked some of the officials about a story published earlier in the day by the news site ProPublica that described a secret Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol officers. Some of the posts referenced the delegation’s trip to the border and included sexist jokes about Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, two of the lawmakers on the trip. Members of the group also joked about setting up a GoFundMe page to give money to any officer who hurt Ocasio-Cortez and Escobar during their visit.
Once Castro brought up the Facebook group, Ocasio-Cortez said, the situation at the Border Patrol station began to “devolve.” CBP has said it initiated an investigation, and officials at the station assured the members of Congress there would be “internal disciplinary measures.”
Ocasio-Cortez pushed back at this response, she recalled. “It’s a culture. This is not about, like, punishing five people. This is systemic,” she said to the officials.
According to Ocasio-Cortez, as they discussed the Facebook page, Rep. Norma Torres, D-Calif., asked the officials if the Democrats would be safe during their visit.
“They wouldn’t even answer her,” Ocasio-Cortez said, later adding, “They were absolutely rude and they were absolutely talking back as though they had as much power as the oversight powers of Congress ... as though they were exempt from congressional oversight.”
The group then went inside the detention area, where they stood at a central command post that had banks of monitors showing surveillance camera feeds from the cells. Ocasio-Cortez said she noticed that one of the cells was “especially overcrowded” and began pointing her pen at the monitor to try and count how many people were inside.
“I see, like, children, no one has enough room to sleep ... and then all of a sudden there’s literally a CBP officer on the other side of that glass ... and she literally starts taking a selfie with me in the background,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “She was, like, right there in front of me.”
Ocasio-Cortez became upset both because she felt the officer was joking around and because photography was supposed to be prohibited in the area.
“It was like a mocking selfie in a facility that we’re told there are no cellphones allowed,” said Ocasio-Cortez. “She’s doing this 2 feet in front of me, in front of all the other members, in front of all her management, in front of all the superiors, like it’s a joke.”
Ocasio-Cortez said she pointed at the woman and turned to the CBP officials, who “froze” as she got “pissed off.”
“I was like, what this tells me is that if they feel this brazen to do this here in front of everyone ... and 14 members of Congress,” she said. “This tells me that there is no disciplinary culture. This tells me that you have lost all control. You have lost all control of the conduct of the officers in this facility ... so there are no rules here.”
Ocasio-Cortez said other officers in the facility began to laugh.
“I pointed at one of them that was laughing and I said, ‘What’s so funny? I’m interested in what you’re laughing at,’” she explained. “Then I pointed at the one who took the selfie and I said, ‘Are you going to be interacting with kids today? Are you going to be in charge of kids’ safety today?’”
According to Ocasio-Cortez, the officers did not respond. The congresswoman said she then began walking through the facility on her own and demanded to enter a cell that was full of women. She was let inside and sat on the floor with the women as she introduced herself and spoke to them in Spanish.
“They were almost talking over each other trying to tell me everything. It was like overwhelming,” Ocasio-Cortez said, adding, “There was, like, this kind of outpouring, and then they just started sobbing, all of them like one ... sobbing, not even crying. ... They said, ‘Please help us. We’re not criminals. We didn’t hurt anyone.’”
According to Ocasio-Cortez, some of the women complained about being detained for weeks and not having access to their families or showers. One said her hair was falling out. Ocasio-Cortez claimed one woman told her the guards use “psychological warfare,” including randomly waking them up at odd hours for no apparent reason.
Ocasio-Cortez grew up in New York, but her parents are both Puerto Rican. As a Latina with immigrant roots, she said, she felt connected to the women she saw in detention.
“I saw one young woman today ... she looked exactly like I looked when I was 14. ... She had the same build, she had a similar face. ... She looked like me, like 14-year-old me. ... She could have been my cousin,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “Especially with these other women, especially with these Cuban women, they’re Caribbean too, like me. ... They’re me.”
While she clearly felt strong emotions during the visit and said other members of Congress were “sobbing,” Ocasio-Cortez claimed she did not cry because she was so focused on getting all the information she could.
“I just felt this urgency,” she said.
Though she clearly feels driven to act, Ocasio-Cortez’s options to change the immigration system are limited with a Republican Senate and Trump in office. She said her options are even further curtailed because she is a freshman in a safe Democratic district, which gives her little influence in the party’s congressional caucus. Because of this, she said, her main goal is to “expose” the situation at the border and encourage the public to act.
“Everything that happens in D.C. is like water ... and you can try to stir the water ... but I would prefer to shape the vessel, and that is how I feel,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “If I help contribute to public awareness, or outrage, or desire, then they will speak to their members and put pressure on their members to do the right thing.”
Ocasio-Cortez hopes to inspire people to call their congressional representatives, go to town halls and push them to address the situation at the border. And she hopes the pressure campaign will include some of her Democratic colleagues.
“There are a lot of horrible Democrats on immigration,” she said.
Following their visit to the El Paso Border Patrol station, the Democrats went to another facility in nearby Clint. Groups of protesters, including those supporting and decrying the Trump administration’s policies on immigration, were present at Clint as the congressional delegation visited.
The anger Ocasio-Cortez faced from anti-immigration protesters in Clint and the threats levied against her in the secret Border Patrol Facebook group are just a fraction of the intense and threatening reactions she has generated in the past year.
With her prominence and progressive positions making her a lightning rod, Yahoo News asked the congresswoman if she ever feared for her safety. She noted in response that the House of Representatives provides security details only to members who are in leadership.
“They don’t offer us any help with security. ... You could literally be the most threatened and whether it’s me, whether it’s what happened with [Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn.] ... it does not matter how many death threats we report. They will not do anything,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
A spokesperson for House Speaker Pelosi did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Unless the Democratic caucus wants to elect me to a leadership position, which fat chance at that,” Ocasio-Cortez said, slapping her hand on the table and lowering her voice to a near whisper. “It’s just a leap of faith in the morning.”
Dealing with threats has also made her dismissive of swing-district Democrats who tell her they must take moderate positions to protect their political future.
“I talk to some of these frontliners, and they’re like, ‘I might not come back. I need to take certain votes because I need to get reelected,’” said Ocasio-Cortez. “I’m like, ‘You know why I fight? Because I don’t know if I’m going to come back, period.’”
She said those risks are part of what drives her to be aggressive on issues like immigration.
“I wake up in the morning, I don’t know what’s going to happen to me that day,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “That, I think, is part of the intensity of my advocacy, because it better be f***ing worth it.”
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