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White House, border officials push back against detention critics

4 min

Washington (AFP)

The White House and US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials pushed back Tuesday against criticism from Democratic lawmakers who toured migrant detention facilities and denounced conditions there.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who visited the detention centers in Texas with other members of Congress on Monday, described conditions as "horrifying" and said migrants were being subjected to "systemic cruelty."

"There's abuse in these facilities," the outspoken Democratic congresswoman from New York told reporters. "There's abuse. They put them in a room with no running water and these women were being told by CBP officers to drink out of the toilet."

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told FOX News that was an "outrageous claim."

"Everybody who has control over that facility, or control for the Border Patrol, has said that's not true, they’ve not heard of this," Conway said.

White House Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley, also speaking to FOX News, said Ocasio-Cortez was among the Democrats who had voted against a congressional package of $4.6 million in humanitarian assistance designed to improve detention conditions for border-crossers.

"She refuses to tell the press, 'Oh, by the way, remember, I voted against all of the potential money that could come down here to fix some of the situation that I'm seeing,'" Gidley said. "So it's, quite frankly, hypocritical and ridiculous for her to make those claims."

CBP deputy commissioner Robert Perez, appearing on CNN, said the detention centers were "never designed to deal with the volume of migrants coming our way" and the Border Patrol is doing its best to deal with "absolutely oversaturated conditions."

Border Patrol officials have said previously they are being swamped by the numbers of refugees crossing from Mexico into the United States. Arrivals of undocumented immigrants have surged in recent months, with 144,000 taken into custody in May alone.

Perez said the CBP has "very strict standards" when it comes to access to fresh water and hygiene products for detainees.

"I'm very confident that we are meeting, and most of the time, exceeding these standards," the CBP official said. "If there are allegations made of misconduct we take those very seriously.

"We've had dozens of congressional staffers and delegations come through our facilities," Perez added. "As far as I've been made aware this is the first time these types of allegations have been made to us."

- Facebook group -

In addition to criticism over detention conditions, the Border Patrol is also under fire following the revelation of a secret Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents that is filled with racist memes and posts mocking migrants.

The existence of the Facebook group called "I'm 10-15" was revealed by the nonprofit news site ProPublica. 10-15 is Border Patrol code for "aliens in custody."

The group was created in August 2016 and has some 9,500 members, according to ProPublica, which published several examples of posts it found there.

For example, a news story about a 16-year-old Guatemalan who died in Border Patrol custody elicited comments such as "Oh well" and "If he dies, he dies."

Members of the group also posted derogatory comments about Ocasio-Cortez and photoshopped images of the Democratic congresswoman engaged in sexual activity.

Border Patrol chief Carla Provost denounced the "inappropriate" posts in the Facebook group and the CBP, which oversees the Border Patrol, said it had launched an investigation.

"These posts are completely inappropriate and contrary to the honor and integrity I see -- and expect -- from our agents day in and day out," Provost said. "Any employees found to have violated our standards of conduct will be held accountable."

Ocasio-Cortez and the other members of Congress visited a Border Patrol detention facility in El Paso, Texas, and another in nearby Clint, Texas.

Democratic Representative Joaquin Castro of Texas took clandestine photos and video inside the facilities and put it on his Twitter feed.

"This moment captures what it's like for women in CBP custody to share a cramped cell -- some held for 50 days -- for them to be denied showers for up to 15 days and life-saving medication," he said in a tweet which accompanied one video. "For some it also means being separated from their children," he said.

"There are many good agents -- men and women working earnestly to care for the people in their custody," Castro added. "But they are overwhelmed in a system that is morally bankrupt and challenged by rogue agents whose culture was on full display in the Facebook group revealed by ProPublica tody."

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