The House Oversight Committee on Thursday demanded access to immigration detention facilities after the Trump administration abruptly canceled planned tours of 11 detention centers—preventing lawmakers from delivering the oversight they are constitutionally bound to provide.
"The department's last-minute denial of access to CBP facilities and unwarranted restrictions at ICE facilities are unacceptable and impair the committee's ability to conduct oversight responsibilities in an effective manner," wrote (pdf) committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.)
DHS drew criticism on social media for its refusal to grant the lawmakers access, with one observer writing sarcastically, "This is definitely how you act when you have nothing to hide."
This is definitely how you act when you have nothing to hide. Totally. https://t.co/vl5Tgt1upR
— Jonathan "Boo and Vote" Cohn (@JonathanCohn) August 30, 2019
Congress has a constitutional duty to oversee federal programs and ensure they are operating properly. But DHS is now blocking congressional staff from oversight visits to detention facilities. https://t.co/Mza9XI9VIB
— MoveOn (@MoveOn) August 29, 2019
Cummings condemned acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan for blocking lawmakers' access shortly after committee staffers returned from a preliminary visit to the facilities—where they reportedly witnessed serious abuse and neglect of migrants.
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In Cummings's letter to the Department of Homeland Security, he detailed some of what staffers saw during ICE and CBP site visits earlier this month, including:
- a man who shouted through a glass partition at a detention center in Mississippi that he was being abused and humiliated by ICE agents and asking to speak with staffers—only to have an ICE official threaten to end the tour and cancel future visits if committee staff spoke to him
- immigrants who reported that young children where being detained in cold rooms without appropriate clothing
- parents who were not being given sufficient diapers for their babies
- immigrants who told the staffers that they had been pressured into signing English-language documents without translation and denied access to phones
The accounts were not unlike numerous reports of abuse in ICE's hundreds of detention facilities where thousands of immigrants are being held for crossing the U.S. border without going through a designated point of entry.
In June, a team of legal experts spoke to children and parents at facilities near El Paso, Texas. The children told them they had no access to soap and toothbrushes, while parents reported they were being given dirty bottles to feed their babies. The team of advocates called the centers "torture facilities."
Human rights organizations and Democrats in Congress have raised alarm about conditions in detention centers, especially as at least seven children have died of preventable causes while in custody.
"It appears that the administration expects Congress to be satisfied with receiving agency tours of facilities—in some cases without the ability to photograph conditions or interview detainees—and not to question the policies or decisions that agency officials make," Cummings wrote in his letter.
"That is not the way effective oversight works," he continued. "Congress has an independent responsibility under the Constitution to determine whether federal programs are operating as they should be―not merely to accept the administration's word for it."