CARRIZO SPRINGS, Texas — Congressional Republicans and Democrats were about 245 miles away from each other in Texas Friday for firsthand observation of the children and families coming into the United States from Mexico — and worlds apart on how to handle the increase in migrants crossing the border.
The visits presented competing narratives about the situation at the border, where the homeland security secretary recently said the U.S. is on pace to reach the highest level of border crossings in 20 years.
Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, who represents the San Antonio area, led a delegation of six of his colleagues, including Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., to visit Carrizo Springs.
The facility there is operated by the Department of Health and Human Services, which provides temporary care for children who crossed the border without a parent or guardian. It can accommodate just under 1,000 children ages 13 to 17, the department said.
Last week, there were about 11,100 such children in the department's care across the country.
Lawmakers seemed to be satisfied with conditions at the shelter but said officials had told them that they had been drained of needed resources by the previous administration. They said many of those now at the facility had fled desperate circumstances.
“There are folks that were from Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, many of the places in Central America. They told us a little bit about their journeys and about their lives. Most of them have family members here, that they're trying to get to, while they have their asylum claims processed,” Castro said.
Castro added: “Not everybody who petitioned for asylum is going to be allowed to stay in the United States.”
"But these folks should have their day in court … and we should treat them humanely in the meantime."
He said Biden had "inherited a situation where the previous administration had sought to dismantle the infrastructure for processing asylum seekers and settling asylum seekers in the United States. And during the pandemic, the Trump administration took advantage of that fact and sought to expel every single person who was coming to the United States to seek asylum, which people were allowed to do around the world." That included thousands of unaccompanied minors, he noted.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., said, she met with a Guatemalan teen whom she asked what he wanted President Joe Biden to know. “That I’m a human being,” she said he told her.
The Democrats said they spoke with officials at the facility who offered suggestions for how to speed up the asylum application process, while Omar said the U.S. needs to step up assistance in the countries the migrants are coming from.
"We also recognize, unlike Republicans, that there is a crisis happening with our neighboring countries," Omar said.
Unlike other facilities along the border, the Carrizo Springs facility isn't suffering from overcrowding. An NBC News crew was allowed inside Carrizo Springs during a visit by White House officials and a Democratic congressional delegation earlier this week. Reporters were not allowed inside on Friday, and lawmakers said they were told they could not share pictures from inside the facility.
Reporters were similarly barred from accompanying a group of 19 Republican senators at an overcrowded Customs and Border Protection facility in Donna that's housing over 4,000 men, women and children.
"We requested media accompany us inside the facility. The Biden administration said no," Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told reporters. "The Biden administration wants to hide what's going on here," Cruz said, describing the facility as "a giant tent city."
He said officials told them that 10 percent of those at the facility have tested positive for the coronavirus, and there's no social distancing to speak of.
"There was no six-foot space, there was no three-foot space- there wasn't a three-inch space between the children lined up, one after the other," Cruz said.
"What is occurring here on the border is heartbreaking and it is a tragedy," Cruz said at a news conference with his fellow senators, standing in front of the Rio Grande and behind a lectern with a sign reading, "Stop the crisis at the border."
He and the other Republicans placed the blame for the overcrowding and the increased number of migrants on the Biden administration's policies, including the halt of the construction of the border wall that former President Donald Trump had predicted would virtually end such crossings.
"If you don’t build it, they will come," said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D..
The senators arrived at the press conference after a boat tour with the Texas Dept. of Public Safety, and said they'd seen a dead body in the river en route. The group arrived in Texas on Thursday, and Cruz tweeted a video of himself before the press conference standing among tall river brush at night.
He said he and other senators were on the banks of the Rio Grande past midnight, where they witnessed cartel members and human traffickers taunting U.S. Border Patrol. He claimed that under the policies of the Biden administration, the undocumented migrants "can flood over here.”
Back in Carrizo Springs, activist Cat Yuracka, 68, wasn't impressed by the senators' humanitarian concerns, noting they didn't express outrage at similar overcrowding during the Trump administration. “The Republican Party after saying nothing during the family separation and the cruelty that was the point of the Trump immigration policy now all of a sudden want to make it an issue and have it blow up in President Biden’s face,” she said.
The visits come a day after Biden faced a number of questions about the growing challenge at the border during his first formal news conference as president. He said his administration is working to fix what he characterized as the mess left by the Trump administration's policies and is taking care of unaccompanied children while sending single adults and most families back to Mexico and other countries.
"The only people we are not going to let be left sitting there on the other side of the Rio Grande by themselves with no help are children," he said.
The president also said the administration would be providing more access to reporters and better transparency at the border facilities, but did not say when.
Biden announced Wednesday that he has tasked Vice President Kamala Harris to lead efforts to stem the flow of migrants across the border.