Coons: Conditions at border detention centers ‘unacceptable’

DOVER — Delaware’s junior U.S. senator traveled to the southern border last week, visiting several migrant detention centers in Texas.

What he saw, he says, left him “heartbroken.”

Chris Coons, a Democrat, joined several other senators Friday flying to southern Texas to see holding facilities for migrant children coming from Central America.

Government investigators, outside attorneys and Democratic members of Congress given access to the sites have described them as dangerously overcrowded, with many children lacking healthy food, clean drinking water, the chance to bathe, a change of clothes and proper sleeping quarters.

“Despite all the reports I’ve received and articles I’ve read about the conditions at the U.S. southern border, nothing could have truly prepared me to witness the humanitarian crisis firsthand,” Sen. Coons tweeted Friday.

He elaborated on his thoughts Sunday in a conference call with reporters in which he painted the conditions as “unacceptable,” although he rejected the description of the facilities as concentration camps, a term used by some critics.

Sen. Coons said his party visited multiple detention facilities and the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, and spoke to dozens of migrants. The group was accompanied by top officials from the Department of Homeland Security and had access to all areas of the facilities the members visited, according to the senator.

“Conditions are getting less bad as supplemental appropriations provides funding for more facilities and supplies, but we should not be mistaken: For our country to have children and families in detention under the circumstances I saw in McAllen is unacceptable,” he said.

Individuals were being provided water that was so heavily chlorinated as to be barely drinkable, many detainees were not told where their family members are and instructions provided to migrants on when and where to appear for immigration hearings were solely in English and lacking specific dates, he said, describing one site as “a dog kennel.”

Operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the sites were not designed to handle the influx of would-be refugees, he said.

While Sen. Coons expressed confidence in border patrol agents, he said they are not trained for a humanitarian crisis and criticized the administration for not providing medical care quicker given the fact several children have died in U.S. custody.

Sen. Chris Coons talks with a migrant in McAllen, Texas, on Friday.

“To use a law enforcement response to a situation that is both a humanitarian and law enforcement challenge I think is to miss a core point,” he said.

Congress approved $4.6 billion in funding for the border crisis last month, which Sen. Coons said has already made a difference in the facilities.

The surge of migrants entering the country stems in large part from the poverty and violence common in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the three countries that make up Central America’s Northern Triangle. A flood of unaccompanied minors traveling to the United States from the Northern Triangle seized headlines in 2014.

According to Sen. Coons, no migrants the group encountered were criminals, simply individuals looking for better lives. While the United States has committed billions of dollars in recent years to help Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, President Trump in March announced the United States would not allocate any further funding unless the countries made efforts to stop the flow of migrants.

Ending the program will only make the situation in the Northern Triangle worse, Sen. Coons opined.

He also denounced media reports from last week that the administration is considering no longer accepting refugees. According to the Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System, the United States has accepted about 21,000 refugees this year, down from nearly 54,000 in 2017 and 85,000 in 2016.

Naturally, Democrats and Republicans differ on how they view the facilities. Republicans argue the administration is upholding the nation’s laws, but many Democrats see the detention centers as inhumane. Some have gone even further: In June, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat, sparked debate by referring to the facilities as concentration camps, a loaded term carrying a great deal of historical weight.

Although some Democrats agreed with the descriptor, Sen. Coons does not, characterizing concentration camps as belonging to “a very particular place and time in history.”

“Using the same term to describe them that is used to describe the death camps during the Nazi regime in the Holocaust is not accurate,” he said.

Earlier this month, the United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights speculated detaining migrant children for weeks in overcrowded facilities lacking basic amenities may fall into the category of cruel and unusual treatment and thus violate international law.

Asked about migrant detention that took place under Barack Obama, Sen. Coons sought to differentiate between policies adopted by President Trump and other presidents.

“This is the first administration to separate children from their parents as a tool of immigration policy, to use cruelty toward children,” he said.

A federal court in 2018 ended the policy of housing children and parents separately, but potentially thousands of minors still have yet to be reunited with their families.

Long a champion of bipartisanship, Sen. Coons stumped for immigration reform on the conference call, noting he has tried to work with Republicans only to have potential deals go up in smoke when the president reverses his position. President Trump has on numerous occasions said he would sign certain legislation only to later backtrack on it, frustrating lawmakers.

Sen. Coons said Sunday he intended to follow up with the Department of Homeland Security about concerns stemming from his visit to the border.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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