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The immigration detention center I saw in Texas isn't just a crisis — it's a nightmare

Desperate people fleeing extreme poverty and life-threatening violence are being held in shameful conditions.
Image: Jackie Speier
California Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier visits with children held in the "Ursula" Centralized Processing Center in McAllen, Texas.Courtesy of the Office of Congresswoman Jackie Speier

I returned home to California after a recent visit to immigrant facilities along the southern border early on the morning of July 14. I went straight to Mass, where the Gospel reading was the parable of the Good Samaritan. The priest told us that it’s easy to be compassionate and merciful to people who are like us. The real test, he reminded us, is being compassionate and merciful to people who are not familiar to us.

“Compassion triumphs all,” he said. Those words still ring in my ears today because no one can truthfully describe America’s response at our southern border as compassionate.

If dogs were kenneled in the overcrowded, unhealthy conditions we observed at the Border Patrol Station, the Humane Society would immediately shut it down.

Indeed, I am still reeling from the humanitarian disaster I witnessed at the McAllen Border Patrol Station, the “Ursula” Centralized Processing Center and the Gateway International Bridge: Desperate people fleeing extreme poverty and life-threatening violence being detained in shameful conditions. Their journey is perilous, they face danger every step of the way, and the threats are no less potent once they arrive at our border. This is more than a crisis. It’s a nightmare with no end.

This was the second time that I and several of my Democratic colleagues visited Department of Homeland Security facilities to inspect the conditions at the border — our first visit was in June 2018, at the height of the Trump administration’s policy separating migrant families. While we noted fewer separated families compared with the previous year, this recent trip proved that the Trump administration’s venomous policies continue to create subhuman conditions.

Prisoners in the United States in my estimation are treated better than migrants. If dogs were kenneled in the overcrowded, unhealthy conditions we observed at the Border Patrol Station, the Humane Society would immediately shut it down. The sheer number of people packed into cells forced the men to take turns lying down. Through soundproof windows, they motioned that they had not showered or brushed their teeth for 40 days, that the lights never go off, that they were sick or needed water. Though they are only supposed to be held in this facility for 72 hours, some of the men told us they had been detained for up to 60 days.

The families, women and children were held down the street at Ursula, a retrofitted warehouse with large cages made from chain-link fencing. From behind a partial concrete wall, the only sounds we could hear were the rushing of the air conditioning and the cries of small children and babies. The temperature in Ursula is much colder than the 100-plus degree weather outside, a shock to many of the migrants’ systems after their arduous journeys. Lights shine overhead 24 hours a day while families huddle between mats and mylar blankets on concrete floors. Agents there told us that illnesses — including bacterial meningitis, flu, typhus and scabies — spread through the facility and recommended we wear face masks during our visit.

Image: Jackie Speier
Rep. Jackie Speier joined volunteers providing food to migrants camped out in Mexico while they await the chance to ask for asylum in the United States.Courtesy of the Office of Congresswoman Jackie Speier

We spoke to many parents with children, including a man whose infant son is blind and suffers from a neurological condition. The baby’s eyes were milky and rolled back in his head while his dad showed us an envelope with medical paperwork. Another man who cradled his infant daughter said she might have the flu. She was listless, flushed, her knuckles white as she clung to her father. Another woman holding her toddler son asked us to find her husband and baby, from whom she had been separated during their migration north. Everywhere we turned, we saw anguish, fear, confusion and despair.

The migrants we met at the nearby Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center and the Good Neighbor Settlement House, nonprofits that provide services to migrants after they are released by DHS, also exhibited clear signs of trauma. The pain of their experiences was reflected in their eyes. When we first arrived, two women with young children burst into tears. They were terrified that we were there to deport them and their children. Once they understood that we were not there as part of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement roundups that were threatened that weekend, they opened up.

We crossed Gateway International Bridge into Mexico twice to speak with dozens of migrants camped out on the sidewalk waiting for their names to move up the list of more than 3,000 people trying to exercise their legal right to claim asylum. They are the victims of the administration’s “metering” policy, which forces families to wait for months or longer in makeshift accommodations in Mexico before they can be processed by Customs and Border Protection. Those camped on the sidewalk next to the bridge — a group that the Mexican authorities limit to around 40 people – consider themselves the “lucky ones.” The presence of Mexican authorities at the bridge makes this area safer than the sections in Matamoros, where thousands of migrants are camped just a short distance from the border.


Throughout the day, it was clear that the nightmare we witnessed is a direct result of President Donald Trump’s orchestrated chaos. Despite the official retraction of the family separation policy a year ago, it’s clear that families are still being split up. Moreover, our asylum system is under assault from every direction, with new policies that make it nearly impossible to claim asylum at a port of entry and then punish migrants for trying to find an alternative. And that’s to say nothing of a host of policies being challenged in the courts that would severely limit the circumstances for qualifying for asylum.

This is Trump’s rancorous message of acrimony and alienation brought to brutal life.

It’s also clear that we must address the root causes of migration in the Northern Triangle by partnering robust aid with anti-corruption and institution-building efforts. Holding some $550 million in aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras hostage and erecting walls will not solve this crisis. It will mean more people like Oscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Angie Valeria — who drowned during a desperate bid to cross the Rio Grande – will die.

This America, so devoid of the compassion shown by the Good Samaritan, is not my America. This is not your America. This is Trump’s rancorous message of acrimony and alienation brought to brutal life. The only way to stop it is to shine the light of truth on his dark crusade.