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ALAMOGORDO, N.M. — On a second investigative trip to the U.S.-Mexican border, Democrats clearly were unhappy with what they saw and heard as they sought reasons for the deaths of two migrant children while in Customs and Border Protection custody.
“If you go into CBP processing centers or detention centers, no American would be proud of the way that we are treating” migrants coming to U.S. southern border, Rep. Joaquín Castro, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said Monday.
Castro was speaking outside the Border Patrol Station here where 8-year-old Felipe Gómez Alonzo had been held before his Christmas Eve death. Felipe spent nearly seven days in CBP custody before he died. CBP policies urge that stays in its holding facilities be limited to 72 hours.
Felipe’s death followed the death of Jakelin Caal Maquin, 7, while in custody of CBP following a 90-mile bus ride between Antelope Wells port of entry and the Lordsburg, New Mexico, Border Patrol facility. Both children were from Guatemala.
Their deaths have put a spotlight on the medical readiness — or lack of it — at CBP facilities and their conditions as the agency sees more children and families arriving at the border from Central America, many seeking asylum.
CBP announced after Felipe’s death that it would begin conducting “secondary medical checks” on all children in custody, with particular attention to children under 10. It also planned to review how it holds migrants in custody to deal with issues of overcrowding in the El Paso, Texas, area. Also, Homeland Security Secretary sent U.S. Coast Guard medical teams to the border to help with the screenings.
Castro said despite the changes, the congressional tour of facilities — which was not open to reporters — “reaffirmed” that the federal government “still has a long way to go" to sure that migrants are treated humanely and that there is proper medical care, supplies, staff and safety measures for migrants and CBP employees.
“We spoke to CBP officers who patrol areas that don’t have radio communication or cell phone service where they are,” Castro said.
Castro and other lawmakers have called for independent investigations of the children’s deaths and Castro has previously demanded that CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan resign.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said members “heard wildly different accounts” Monday of medical conditions and availability of “proper food" for migrants.
“We will get to the bottom of this,” said Nadler, who also promised that the Judiciary Committee “would provide what hasn’t been provided up to now which is congressional oversight.”
Castro and Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., who is a doctor, plan to introduce legislation regarding medical conditions and training for CBP facilities.
Although some improvements were seen on Monday's tour, Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, D-N.M., cautioned that lawmakers still need to see there will be follow through on changes.
Calling the situation at the border a humanitarian crisis, Castro faulted the Trump administration for promoting the practice of “metering” at the border — meaning CBP officials only allow a small number of migrants, which CBP considers manageable — through ports of entry on any given day.
This practice, said Castro, encourages migrants to seek out more rural and dangerous areas of the border to cross.
Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, said Felipe and his father crossed the border near where border barriers exist in El Paso, so it is incorrect to think a wall would have prevented his death or that of other migrants.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who is not part of the Hispanic Caucus but was invited to join the tour Wednesday, called the CBP detention centers “family internment camps."
“Children belong in homes, in schools, in parks,” said Merkley, a potential 2020 presidential candidate.
Lawmakers got news while visiting the facilities of President Donald Trump's plans to address the American public in a Tuesday address on immigration.
"I expect the president to lie to the American people," Nadler said.
Castro responded by criticizing Trump's statements that he might declare a national emergency on the border to clear the way for the border wall he has demanded Congress fund, a demand that has partially shut down the U.S. government for more than two weeks.
Castro said it would be "profoundly inappropriate" for the president of the United States to circumvent the U.S. Congress and "single-handedly go against the will of the American people and the American Congress and put up a border wall."
"We would challenge it in every way that we could," Castro said.
Mariana Atencio and Annie Rose Ramos reported from Alamogordo. Suzanne Gamboa reported from Austin, Texas.