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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Confusion at the Border

In recent days, contradictory claims have been made about border issues, including the living conditions for migrants being housed at U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention facilities:

  • Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan claimed that children in CBP custody are receiving “appropriate meals” and showers. But the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general’s office said it visited five facilities and found children at three of them “had no access to showers” and “two facilities had not provided children access to hot meals.”
  • Firing back at Kellyanne Conway’s accusation that she is “all talk, no dollars,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said a $4.6 billion emergency aid bill she opposed “wasn’t humanitarian at all.” But it includes money for food, shelter, medical expenses and other aid for migrants and unaccompanied children at the border.
  • Four Democratic lawmakers claimed that detainees at CBP facilities told them guards had instructed the detainees to drink water from toilets. Ocasio-Cortez confirmed the toilet was a toilet/sink combination unit but claimed the sink portion wasn’t working.
  • Rep. Marc Veasey made the unsubstantiated claim that “about half” of Customs and Border Patrol agents were members of a secret Facebook group page that included offensive posts, but that would assume that all of the page members are current agents. The page is open to former agents as well, and we don’t know if other non-agents may have joined.
The Inspector General’s Report

For months, there has been a rising number of migrants, many of them from Central America, attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. In May, there were more than 132,000 people apprehended illegally trying to cross the border — the highest number since March 2006. On July 1, President Donald Trump signed a $4.6 billion emergency aid bill to help CBP cope with the surge of immigrants.

On June 28, a day after the House gave final approval, acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan held a press conference to praise Congress for providing the emergency funding, but also urged it to address the root cause of the problem.

At the press conference, McAleenan also criticized media accounts of the living conditions at the agency’s detention facilities that are temporarily housing migrants at the border. In doing so, he made at least two statements that have proven to be false.

After saying that the Department of Homeland Security has provided “unprecedented resources” to deal with the surge of migrants at the border, McAleenan said this about the living conditions at the detention centers:

McAleenan, June 28: Contrary to the reporting, children in CBP custody at the border are receiving access to key supplies, including toothbrushes, appropriate meals, blankets, showers as soon as they can be provided and medical screening.

Four days later, the DHS Office of Inspector General issued a report on the “dangerous overcrowding” conditions at Border Patrol facilities that directly contradicted McAleenan’s claims about meals and showers.

The IG report said it visited five Border Patrol facilities in the Rio Grande Valley Sector in Texas, including border stations in McAllen, Weslaco and Brownsville, and two processing centers. The IG found that the agency is violating its own standards for care.

“During our visits to five Border Patrol facilities and two ports of entry in the Rio Grande Valley, we reviewed compliance with CBP’s Transport, Escort, Detention and Search (TEDS) standards, which govern CBP’s interaction with detained individuals, and observed serious overcrowding and prolonged detention of unaccompanied alien children (UACs), families, and single adults that require immediate attention,” the report said.

Contrary to McAleenan’s claim that migrant children are receiving “appropriate meals,” the IG report said: “While all facilities had infant formula, diapers, baby wipes, and juice and snacks for children, we observed that two facilities had not provided children access to hot meals — as is required by the TEDS standards — until the week we arrived. Instead, the children were fed sandwiches and snacks for their meals.”

Further, the report said that “many single adults had been receiving only bologna sandwiches. Some detainees on this diet were becoming constipated and required medical attention.”

As for McAleenan’s claim that children had access to “showers as soon as they can be provided,” the IG report found violations of the agency’s own standards.

“For example, children at three of the five Border Patrol facilities we visited had no access to showers, despite the TEDS standards requiring that ‘reasonable efforts’ be made to provide showers to children approaching 48 hours in detention,” the report said. “At these facilities, children had limited access to a change of clothes; Border Patrol had few spare clothes and no laundry facilities.”

The sanitary conditions were even worse for adults — including some who hadn’t had access to a shower for as long as a month.

IG Report, July 2: In these overcrowded conditions, CBP was unable to meet TEDS standards. For example, although TEDS standards require CBP to make a reasonable effort to provide a shower for adults after 72 hours, most single adults had not had a shower in CBP custody despite several being held for as long as a month. At some facilities, Border Patrol was giving detainees wet-wipes to maintain personal hygiene. Most single adult detainees were wearing the clothes they arrived in days, weeks, and even up to a month prior.

The report said one senior manager described the situation as a “ticking time bomb.”

Humanitarian Aid

In one heated Twitter exchange, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway accused Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of being “all talk, no dollars” because she voted “AGAINST the $4.6 billion bipartisan humanitarian aid that is FOR THEM” and “even voted against the Democratic aid package.”

Ocasio-Cortez shot back: “The $4.6 billion wasn’t humanitarian at all. It had NO accountability measures for facilities that abuse children and families. It didn’t fix the problem, just funded abuse. I don’t believe in billion dollar blank checks for unethical, abusive administrations. Including yours.”

We take no position on whether the bill provides enough accountability measures, but it does include money for food, shelter and medical expenses and other aid that would be considered humanitarian for migrants and unaccompanied children.

It’s true that Ocasio-Cortez voted against the original Democratic House version of the bill, which called for $4.5 billion in aid. Ocasio-Cortez was one of just four Democrats who opposed the bill (which was also opposed by the vast majority of Republicans).

A joint statement released on June 22 by the four Democrats who opposed the $4.5 billion aid package explained that their opposition was tied to the bill including $1.2 billion to Customs and Border Protection and $128 million to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“These radicalized, criminal agencies are destroying families and killing innocent children,” the statement said. “It is absolutely unconscionable to even consider giving one more dollar to support this President’s deportation force that openly commits human rights abuses and refuses to be held accountable to the American people. That is why in good conscience, we cannot support this supplemental funding bill, which gives even more money to ICE and CBP and continues to support a fundamentally cruel and broken immigration system.” The statement called for the abolishment of ICE and an “end [to] the system of mass detention and deportation of immigrants.”

I will not fund another dime to allow ICE to continue its manipulative tactics,” Ocasio-Cortez said, according to the New York Times

The Senate passed its own version of a $4.6 billion emergency aid package in largely bipartisan fashion. House Democrats initially balked at the Senate version, raising concerns about accountability and transparency, among other things. But with Congress set to go on a Fourth of July break and the administration warning that it would run out of money within days, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi relented, sending a letter to her Democratic caucus urging them to support the Senate version of the bill “to make sure that the resources needed to protect the children are available.”

Pelosi, June 28: The children come first. At the end of the day, we have to make sure that the resources needed to protect the children are available. Therefore, we will not engage in the same disrespectful behavior that the Senate did in ignoring our priorities. In order to get resources to the children fastest, we will reluctantly pass the Senate bill. As we pass the Senate bill, we will do so with a Battle Cry as to how we go forward to protect children in a way that truly honors their dignity and worth.

The bill passed the House, 305-102, with Ocasio-Cortez joining 95 other Democrats and seven Republicans in opposition.

“His [Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s] Senate bill is a militarization bill. McConnell killed the House Bill & dropped this one right before recess to force passage,” Ocasio-Cortez said on Twitter. “Well, too bad. This is our job. Cancel vacation, fly the Senate in. Pass a clean humanitarian bill & stop trying to squeeze crises for more pain.”

“This Senate Bill will have us write a $4.6 Billion blank check (incl military $) for the border w NO accountability – just a verbal pinky promise,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted the same day. “Trump is not to be trusted with protecting our immigrants”

The lawmaker may take issue with the Senate bill not being a “clean humanitarian bill,” but she’s not correct that it “wasn’t humanitarian at all.” The largest portion of the funding — $2.88 billion — will go to Health and Human Services to provide shelter and care for unaccompanied children. At least $866 million of that will go toward providing “care in licensed shelters and for expanding the supply of shelters.”

Ocasio-Cortez is correct that it includes money for the military — $145 million “to respond to the significant rise in unaccompanied minors and family unit aliens at the southwest border and related activities.”

The bill also includes $220 million for the Department of Justice, including $65 million to fund 30 new immigration judge teams and $155 million for the U.S. Marshals Service for housing, transportation and care for federal detainees.

Other funding includes $1 billion for CBP, including $708 million for the operation of migrant care facilities and $112 million for “consumables and medical care” for migrants. Another $209 million would go to ICE, including $85 million for “procurement, construction, and improvements for migrant care facilities.”

The Toilet Controversy

Were detainees in border patrol facilities told by guards to drink water from toilets? That’s what at least four Democratic lawmakers claimed, though it’s unclear whether the reference to toilets was to a sink/toilet combination unit and the tap water from the sink part.

From a fact-checking perspective, this claim is akin to hearsay in court. We can’t say what unidentified guards told unidentified detainees or what those detainees then told lawmakers. But we can lay out what we do know.

On July 1, a group of Democratic lawmakers visited CBP detention facilities in Texas. Afterward, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York said on Twitter: “Officers were keeping women in cells w/ no water & had told them to drink out of the toilets.”

Two lawmakers from Texas also made that claim. Rep. Joaquin Castro told reporters: “When we went into the cell, it was — it was clear that the water was not running. There was a toilet but there was no running water for people to drink. In fact, one of the women said that she was told by an agent to drink water out of the toilet.” And Rep. Marc Veasey said in a July 2 interview on MSNBC’s “Hardball“: “Well, what we saw was horrible, particularly when we talked with some of the detainees that were in the holding cells at the first facility that we visited. Where we were told that they were — if they asked for a drink of water, that the guards told them to drink out of the toilet.”

Rep. Judy Chu of California also tweeted: “‘If you want water, just drink from a toilet.’ That’s what border patrol told one thirsty woman we met on today’s #DemsAtTheBorder trip.”

David Martosko, the U.S. political editor with the Daily Mail, questioned on Twitter whether the toilets had sinks with faucets on top of them, as he showed in a picture from a different facility:


Ocasio-Cortez responded to that tweet, saying it was indeed a toilet like that but the sink portion wasn’t working.

“This was in fact the type of toilet we saw in the cell. Except there was just one, and the sink portion was not functioning – @AyannaPressley smartly tried to open the faucet, and nothing came out,” Ocasio-Cortez said, referring to Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts. “So the women were told they could drink out of the bowl.”

Clara Long, the deputy Washington director of Human Rights Watch, also told MSNBC: “Asking people to drink out of that tap that comes out of the toilet is common practice across the entire border.” Host Chris Matthews asked: “But it didn’t mean go drinking out of the toilet bowl?” Long responded: “It’s not drinking out of the toilet bowl.”

Customs and Border Protection issued a statement that said: “Representatives visited two locations (El Paso Station and Clint Station), where migrants in custody receive three meals a day and have access to clean drinking water. … CBP takes allegations of mistreatment of individuals in our facilities seriously, and reports all allegations to both the DHS Office of the Inspector General and the CBP Office of Professional Responsibility. Any employee found to have violated our standards of conduct will be held accountable.”

BuzzFeed News noted that there have been complaints about detainees being told to drink from toilet tanks before. A 2014 complaint filed by immigrant legal groups on behalf of 116 children held in custody said: “More than 80 percent described denial of adequate food and water in CBP custody, including a child whose only available drinking water came from a toilet tank and others who received only frozen or spoiled food and subsequently became ill.”

Unsubstantiated Claim about Border Patrol

On MSNBC’s “Hardball,” Veasey also made the unsubstantiated claimed that “about half” of the Border Patrol agents were members of a secret Facebook group page that included vulgar and sexists posts, as uncovered by ProPublica. The group says it is open to both current and former CBP agents, but Veasey assumes all are current agents.

Veasey, July 2, MSNBC: And you worry about your safety particularly when the people entrusted to guard you are probably members of that page. Like it was just mentioned about half of the members of Customs and Border Patrol are members of this Facebook page.

Ocasio-Cortez echoed that claim on Twitter, saying: “There are 20,000 TOTAL Customs & Border Patrol agents in the US. 9,500 – almost HALF that number – are in a racist & sexually violent secret CBP Facebook group.”

But we don’t know how many of the 9,500 Facebook page members are current versus former CBP agents, or how many may have become members of the page without having ever been agents.

In a tweet, CBP said the group “may include a number of CBP employees.” Matthew Klein, assistant commissioner in CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility, said in a statement that it had launched an investigation into the matter and notified the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General.

We also don’t know how many of the 9,500 Facebook group members have been involved in posting or commenting on the type of content ProPublica identified, which included posts targeting Ocasio-Cortez. Art Del Cueto, a Border Patrol union representative, told Fox News: “I can tell you that it is a minimum amount of individuals that have been commenting in that rude way. Not that it makes a difference, right?” He said “around 20 individuals … are the ones that would be constantly putting something up.” Del Cueto added: “It’s hard to know who’s an agent and who’s not an agent,” saying the union condemns the behavior.

ProPublica reported that it had asked CBP about three agents it had identified “who appear to have participated in the online chats.”

Share the Facts
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Not What IG Found
"Contrary to the [media] reporting, children in CBP custody at the border are receiving ... appropriate meals" and "showers as soon as they can be provided."
Press conference
Friday, June 28, 2019
Share the Facts
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Spins the Facts
A $4.6 billion border bill that she opposed “wasn’t humanitarian at all.”
Tuesday, July 2, 2019