US top official defends conditions at Border Patrol stations

WASHINGTON (AP) – Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan last Sunday defended conditions at United States (US) Border Patrol stations following reports of crowded and unsanitary conditions that have heightened debate about US President Donald Trump’s immigration policy, a trademark issue for his re-election campaign.

“It’s an extraordinarily challenging situation,” McAleenan told ABC’s This Week.

The Homeland Security Department’s (DHS) internal watchdog provided new details last Tuesday about the overcrowding in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, the busiest corridor for illegal crossings.

The report said children at three facilities had no access to showers and that some children under age seven had been held in jammed centres for more than two weeks. Some cells were so cramped that adults were forced to stand for days on end.

Government inspectors described an increasingly dangerous situation, both for migrants and agents – a “ticking time bomb”, in the words of one facility manager.

The report echoed findings in May by the department’s Inspector General about holding centres in El Paso, Texas: 900 people crammed into a cell with a maximum capacity of 125; detainees standing on toilets to have room to breathe; others wearing soiled clothing for days or weeks.

A grandmother protesting the treatment of children in Border Patrol custody walks back to her car by a fence at a holding centre in Clint, Texas. – AP

In tweets last Sunday afternoon, Trump went further than McAleenan in defending his administration’s response, accusing the news media of “phony and exaggerated accounts” but without providing evidence.

“Border Patrol, and others in law enforcement, have been doing a great job. We said there was a crisis – the fake news and the Democrats said it was ‘manufactured’,” Trump wrote.

Federal detention centres “are crowded (which we… brought up, not them) because the Democrats won’t change the loopholes and asylum. Big media con job!”

Democrats faulted Trump for not offering an immigration overhaul that could pass a divided Congress.

“The President is acting like we are some weak, pathetic country,” said Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, a Democratic presidential candidate. “We have the ability to treat human beings humanely.”

“We have the ability to lead our hemisphere in a discussion about how to deal with this refugee crisis,” he said on Fox News Sunday.

McAleenan said that since the first of the year, 200 medical providers have been added to facilities, including personnel from the US Coast Guard and the Public Health Service Commission Corps.

“We have paediatricians in border patrol stations for the first time in history trying to help address conditions where children are coming across 300 a day in… April and May,” McAleenan said.

“We’ve built soft-sided temporary facilities. These are spaces that are much more appropriate – high ceilings, more room for children and families. We’ve put them both in Donna, Texas, in South Texas as well as in El Paso to provide additional space… We’ve bought buses to transport people to better places.” McAleenan disputed news reports, including those by

The Associated Press, of especially troubling conditions at a border station in Clint, Texas, where a stench was coming from children’s clothing and some detainees were suffering from scabies and chickenpox.

“There’s adequate food and water,” he said. “The facility’s cleaned every day, because I know what our standards are and I know they’re been followed because we have tremendous levels of oversight. Five levels of oversight.

“Inadequate food, inadequate water and unclean cells. None of those have been substantiated.”