US homeland security chief says migrant conditions improved

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Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan speaks to Congress on July 18, 2019

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan speaks to Congress on July 18, 2019 (AFP Photo/SAUL LOEB)

Washington (AFP) - The US Homeland Security chief drew the wrath of Democrats on Thursday when he said conditions for detained migrant children on the southern border had improved after reports of squalor and abuse.

The administration of President Donald Trump is facing pressure from the Democratic opposition majority in the House of Representatives amid reports of abusive conditions for undocumented migrants who crossed the into the United States in recent months, many of whom are families and unaccompanied children.

During a hearing before the House Oversight Committee, acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said there is a "much better situation for children at the border now."

He said emergency border funding approved by Congress at the end of June has reduced the number of people detained by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) from a 20,000-person average in June to its current level of less than 10,000 people.

It also paid for the opening of new tent camps, and allowed for the reduction of unaccompanied minors in CBP custody from 2,700 last month to 350 on Tuesday.

But committee chair Elijah Cummings, a Democrat, reacted with disbelief to his testimony, accusing McAleenan of a "tendency to sugarcoat" what he said was an appalling situation at the border.

"I can tell you that I am at a point when I began to wonder if there is an empathy deficit," he said.

McAleenan responded by saying officers working under his department were doing "their absolute best to help these children," prompting an emotional response from Cummings.

"What does that mean when the child is sitting in his own feces, without (a) shower? Come on, man... they are human beings," the congressman said, referencing the most dire reports from migrant detention centers.

McAleenan said "there is no one defecating in their own blanket," and said agents allowed children to shower.

Arrests of migrants at the US-Mexico border has topped 100,000 each month since March, including families and children traveling alone.

However the Department of Homeland Security expects the number to drop by 25 percent in June, after Mexico enacted measures to prevent migrants -- most from impoverished and crime-ridden Central American countries -- from reaching the United States.

Detention centers have struggled with overcrowding and numerous reports have emerged of migrants being crammed into makeshift cells and forced to sleep on the ground.

Trump has made curbing undocumented arrivals a priority, causing tension with Democrats upset over alleged violations of migrants' rights.

The president has in turn blamed Democrats for blocking his proposals to overhaul the US immigration system.