WASHINGTON (CN) – The conditions at immigrant jails are so heinous, the stench from unwashed children caked in urine, vomit and rancid breast milk so foul, it was hard for adults sent to interview them to sit close as they spoke.
One 6-year-boy old sobbed for nearly an hour straight as Elora Mukherjee, a clinical professor of law at Columbia Law School’s Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, sat with him for an interview. It was one of 70 Mukherjee would conduct at a facility in Clint, Texas, this year.
“I want to share with you what I heard, saw and smelled,” Mukherjee said Friday, testifying before the House Oversight Committee.
Children could not wash their hands with soap because none was available, she said, her voice cracking. They wore the same clothes on them when they crossed the border and were not able to change underwear. Children were traumatized, hungry and constantly crying. Others, as young as 8 years old, were forced to care for the younger ones.
A guard would come into a cell with a small child in tow, and ask: “Who is going to care for this one?” Mukherjee told lawmakers.
“One 6-year-old girl, detained all alone could only say: ‘I’m scared. I’m scared. I’m scared,’ over and over again,” the professor said. “She could not even tell me her name.”
In addition to Mukherjee, Democrat and Republican lawmakers also testified at today’s hearing, as did inspector generals for the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services.
“We use the word inhumane for a reason,” Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings said Friday. “Separating children from their mothers and fathers causes damage that may endure for a lifetime. Let that sink in. In other words, until they die.”
Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Veronica Escobar of Texas visited the same facility Mukherjee did on July 1.
In a word, what they witnessed was “haunting,” Tlaib said Friday, crying through her testimony. Representative Pressley told the committee she would never forget what she witnessed or heard.
One woman asked her: Do I deserve to be treated like a dog?
“Yet on that concrete floor, many women still had a deep abiding love for this country,” Pressley said. “A country they had only come to know first as their captor.”
The Democrats say their visit to the facility in Clint this month showed systemic abuse and human rights violations. Ocasio-Cortez described treatment by border patrol agents as “psychological warfare.”
Guards referred to the detained women as “whores,” and all of this done under the dozens of American flags hung throughout the center, Ocasio-Cortez said.
The lawmakers visited the facility after ProPublica issued a report on a private Facebook group of roughly 9,500 border patrol officers where vulgar, racist and sexist remarks abounded.
The Intercept reported Friday that Carla Provost, chief of CBP, was also a member of the group.
But Republicans like Arizona Representative Debbie Lesko and Texas Representatives Chip Roy and Michael Cloud were insistent that the border conditions have been greatly exaggerated.
Roy said his own chief of staff visited the Clint facility after the Democrats’ visit, and what he saw there was was an abundance of food, toothpaste and diapers.
Roy’s office did not immediately return request for comment Friday afternoon.
Cloud slammed Democrats for “vilifying” U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents, saying that any comparison of the facilities to concentration camps was improper. Ohio Republican Representative Jim Jordan echoed Cloud, saying Democrats were “attacking” border agents who needed funding and help.
“Let’s address this,” Jordan said. “Stop obstructing the wall. Stop your obsession with attacking the president.”
On the heels of Congress having just approved an additional $4.6 billion border aid package, however, Tlaib denied that Friday’s hearing was about attacking President Donald Trump or his administration.
“By allowing us to testify, we aren’t picking on the president,” she said. “We’re holding the administration accountable. It is a dangerous ideology that rules our nation now.”
Thomas Homan, former acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also testified Friday. President Trump told Fox News in June he wanted to tap Homan as his “border czar.”
Homan retired in 2017 but the president asked him to stay on for another year. He retired again in 2018 but on Friday, Homan told Congress he would consider returning but hadn’t decided yet.
Interactions between Homan and Democratic lawmakers were frequently tense. The former ICE director told the committee that all who attack the integrity of those that serve on the border should be ashamed.
Homan also advocated for extended detention of families, saying that those who seek asylum must wait their turn.
“If these families are in fact escaping fear and persecution from their government, there should be no reason not to detain them to plead their case to a judge,” Homan said.
“If you don’t like this, do your job, fix it,” he added, pointing the finger at Congress.
But the “manufactured cruelty” of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy is also worth noting, Ocasio-Cortez said.
She asked Homan to confirm that he authored a heavily redacted and once-confidential April 2018 memo to former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen which, among other options, directed the “pursuit of prosecution of all amendable adults, including those presenting as a family unit.”
“I gave the secretary many recommendations to save lives,” Homan said.
When Ocasio-Cortez questioned the directive to prosecute those seeking asylum, Homan told the lawmaker if anyone wants asylum, they only have to seek it through a legal port of entry.
According to a new report published by Democrats on the committee Friday, it was determined that at least 18 infants and children under 2 years old were separated from their parents for 20 days or more.
All told, during the Trump administration’s enforcement of the policy, some 679 children were held in custody for 46 to 75 days. More than 50 were held between six months to a year. At least 25 children were held for over a year.
Mukherjee told the committee if they wanted to curb the human rights abuses happening on the border, the best path forward is transparency.
“Let doctors in, let public health experts in, inspect facilities and give them authorization to order remediation. The administration got these requests and said no. They should be coerced,” she said.