Competing narratives on how immigrant children are being treated in border facilities continue to emerge as a group of evangelical pastors and Democrat members of Congress reflected Monday on what they saw during separate border visits.
Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, told reporters Monday that he is saddened by the “misinformation” published in the media last week about the conditions facing detained migrant children temporarily held at Customs and Border Protection facilities.
On a press call, he explained that he, too, was shocked last week after reports based on lawyers’ interviews with 60 detained children highlighted terrifying conditions facing children in overcrowded border detention centers in Texas.
The CBP detention centers are facilities where undocumented immigrant children are supposed to be held temporarily before being transferred to long-term shelter facilities operated by the Department of Health and Human Services.
But reports from news outlets like The New York Times and The Associated Press painted a horrifying picture of children being detained for days and weeks while being denied basic hygiene items, being forced to sleep on concrete floors and not being able to bathe.
Rodriguez, a leading Hispanic evangelical who has ties to the Trump administration, said he demanded last week that the White House grant him and a group of pastors affiliated with the largest Latino evangelical network in the country immediate access to tour the Clint border facility where the attorneys had been.
The group of pastors toured the facility for about an hour last Friday. While Rodriguez says there was not an area of the facility that they could not access, they were not allowed to interview the children being detained.
“I read the reports, saw the news clips,” Rodriguez, a California megachurch pastor, said. “To my surprise, I saw something drastically different from the stories I’ve been hearing in our national discourse. Even as a veteran of immigration advocacy in the U.S., I was shocked at the misinformation of the crisis at the border.”
“What did our visit reveal?” Rodriguez asked. “We found no soiled diapers, no deplorable conditions, and no lack of basic necessities.”
Rodriguez, who has not shied away from speaking out about Trump’s immigration policies, explained that he was “full of indignation” when he first read the mainstream media reports last week. The New York Times report quoted one lawyer saying that children were being “locked in their cells and cages nearly all day long.”
“Here is what I discovered. They [the lawyers] never toured the facility. I want to make this clear. They never toured the areas that we toured. It all came via the conduit of interviews,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez added that he even asked Border Patrol agents if they staged the facility for the pastors’ visit because of all the negative press the CBP had received in the days before. Rodriguez said border agents “unequivocally denied” such an accusation.
“Even my conspiracy mindset kicked in for a second: did you all stage this for us?” Rodriguez, 49, asked. “Unequivocally, the pushback was pretty measurable there and it was, ‘Absolutely not, you are looking at what existed when the attorneys came here to interview those kids.’”
The reports last week indicated that there were over 350 children held in the Clint, Texas, facility. As CBP facilities are not equipped to provide long-term care, children are legally only supposed to be housed in those facilities for 72 hours before being transferred to an HHS facility.
After the reports came out, nearly 250 children were transferred out of the Clint border facility to an HHS facility. However, about 100 children sent to the HHS facilities were returned to the overcrowded CBP facility in Clint last Tuesday because of the lack of space.
A CBP spokesperson said that the Clint facility was being used as a “consolidated” holding facility “to streamline transfer to HHS and to accommodate separate holding areas based on age and gender,” according to The Washington Post.
During the call, a reporter asked Rodriguez to comment on reports that some detainees are migrants forced to sleep on cement floors.
“No one is sleeping on cement whatsoever. There were three-tiered cots for the older kids. The younger kids had even better areas actually,” Rodriguez said.
“I am in no way creating a moral equivalence to my following statements. I am just giving you an example. It looked a lot more like as if it were a summer camp environment as it pertains to snacks being ready, cots, that sort of thing, television stations,” he continued. “It looked more like that than anything else. Again, it's not an ideal world because it is still a detention center. It had that sort of vibe, that sort of atmosphere to it.”
Rodriguez said he was even taken to a storage area where he was shown all the hygiene and clothing items at the center.
“Sweatpants, sweatshirts, T-shirts, hygiene products,” he said. “You name it, anything you could possibly need for that sort of environment, that sort of reality.”
Eddie Rentz, vice president of compassion for NHCLC, told reporters that he’s visited both the border detention facility in Clint and a CBP facility in El Paso.
“We did not see cages, locked doors, filthy facilities. These agents were professional,” Rentz contended. “They were conscientious. They were caring. They were giving themselves in a way that showed that these kids mattered. I was amazed at how hard they work and how professional they were while they served those that were in their detention center at that time.”
Rentz, Rodriguez and the other pastors on the press call detested the fact that border agents are being villainized in the media when many of them are doing all they can to help children and adults in need.
“These Border Patrol agents are highly competent, deeply compassionate and unbelievably caring toward those who they are called to watch and serve over,” Todd Lamphere, pastor of Global Outreach for Paula White Ministries, said on the press call.
“They have become part-time childcare workers, part-time cafeteria workers, part-time social workers and part-time medical assistants all while having to be law enforcement officers as well. The Bible talks about giving honor to whom honor is due and these amazing men and women in green deserve all the honor that we can give them.”
The pastors’ remarks contrast starkly with the remarks from House Democrats who went on a Congressional Hispanic Caucus trip to two Texas border centers on Monday.
“Officers were keeping women in cells w/ no water & had told them to drink out of the toilets,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., wrote. “This was them on their GOOD behavior in front of members of Congress.” When media asked if she witnessed this herself, Ocasio-Cortez did not respond.
Ocasio-Cortez also said she “forced” herself into a cell with women who described their treatment at the hands of border officers as “psychological warfare.”
“[W]aking them at odd hours for no reason, calling them whores, etc.,” Ocasio-Cortez claimed.
“This was in fact the type of toilet we saw in the cell,” Ocasio-Cortez said in another tweet. “Except there was just one, and the sink portion was not functioning — @AyannaPressley smartly tried to open the faucet, and nothing came out. So the women were told they could drink out of the bowl.”
Ocasio-Cortez also claimed that she was told by detainees that CBP staff did a “lot of ‘cleaning up’ before we arrived.”
“They were moved into that room from outside tents before our arrival,” she said. “They said they’d gone 15 days w/o a shower, & were allowed to start bathing 4 days ago (when visit was announced).”
In another tweet, Ocasio-Cortez shared a photo of a small shampoo packet. She said one woman told her that was all they were given to wash their entire body.
“Some women’s hair was falling out,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote. “Others had gone 15 days without taking a shower.”
Samuel Rodriguez responded to Ocasio-Cortez and other Democrats' claims in an emailed statement to The Christian Post, saying: "I'm totally baffled by the reports of politicians who visited exactly where I visited and saw exactly what I saw. Our political leaders — Republican and Democrat — need to decide whether they are going to be pundits or legislators. But the only way to solve our broken immigration system is bipartisan legislation. I have no interest personally in being a pundit. I just want to deal with the facts and to finally solve this problem."
Rep. Madeleine Dean, a Pennsylvania Democrat, wrote in a tweet that she and other lawmakers were “met with hostility from the guards.”
Rep. Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts argued in a tweet that the centers were "resistant to congressional oversight" and that the "[a]tmosphere was contentious and uncooperative."
"Facilities are wholly inadequate. Cells maxed to capacity, concrete floors. ... It felt jail-like," he stated in another tweet. "No way to keep a child or innocent human being. Group of 13 women from Cuba were in tears when we spoke with them."
Dean stated that the way officers treated the lawmakers was “nothing compared to their treatment of the people being held.”
“The detainees are constantly abused and verbally harassed with no cause,” Dean claimed. “Deprived physically and dehumanized mentally — every day. This is a human rights issue.”
Although the lawmakers complained about having their phones taken away before entering the facility, Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas snuck in a camera and tweeted photos and videos from inside the El Paso CBP detention facility.
The photos and videos showed detainees sitting and laying on sleeping bags on the floor.
“At the El Paso Border Patrol Station #1, women from Cuba, some grandmothers, crammed into a prison-like cell with one toilet, but no running water to drink from or wash their hands with,” Castro tweeted. “Concrete floors, cinder-block walls, steel toilets.”
Castro admitted that there are “many good [border] agents — men and women working earnestly to care for the people in their custody.”
“But they are overwhelmed in a system that is morally bankrupt and challenged by rogue agents whose culture was on full display in the Facebook group revealed by ProPublica today,” Castro contended.
On Monday, ProPublica published a report about a 9,500-member secret Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents. In the group, members are accused of making derogatory remarks about migrants. One post reportedly depicted Ocasio-Cortez having oral sex with a detained migrant.
Daniel Martinez, a sociologist at the University of Arizona, told ProPublica that the posts in the page were “clearly xenophobic and sexist.” He added that there “seems to be a pervasive culture of cruelty aimed at immigrants within CBP. This isn’t just a few rogue agents or ‘bad apples.’”
“These agents don’t deserve to wear any uniform representing the United States of America,” Castro tweeted.
Abby Johnson, a pro-life leader who was the real-life inspiration for the 2019 movie “Unplanned,” responded to the claims made by Ocasio-Cortez.
“I’m going to be going down to the border next week with an 18 wheeler of supplies,” she wrote. “It will be interesting if these [detained] women tell me the same thing or if you are just using them to push an agenda. We will see soon.”
Earlier this month, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General released a report after reviewing four centers where detainees are held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The report found violations of ICE’s 2011 Performance-Based National Detention Standards at the centers in New Jersey, California, Colorado and Louisiana.
“Two facilities failed to provide recreation outside detainee housing units. Bathrooms in two facilities’ detainee housing units were dilapidated and moldy,” the report explains.
“At one facility, detainees were not provided appropriate clothing and hygiene items to ensure they could properly care for themselves. Lastly, one facility allowed only non-contact visits, despite being able to accommodate in-person visitation. Our observations confirmed concerns identified in detainee grievances, which indicated unsafe and unhealthy conditions to varying degrees at all of the facilities we visited.”
In Monday’s press call, Rodriguez said that the NHCLC, the leading coalition of evangelical churches in the U.S. is relaunching the “For His Children” campaign.
In partnership with the Convoy of Hope, NHCLC aims to have “boots on the ground” to work with the Trump administration to provide humanitarian needs to migrants that the federal government can’t provide.
“We are going to provide resources. If the government can’t provide certain resources, we are going to be there at the ground,” Rodriguez said. “We are talking about sending shipments and cargo in truckloads for resources to the border to help out these kids. Some of these kids come without shoes, without necessary clothing and so forth, hygiene products, sanitary products. We want to come along and say how can we best serve these children.”
Rodriguez also indicated that the initiative would involve providing foster homes for detained children. But questions remain as to how the initiative will be implemented as NHCLC has reportedly not gotten government approval.
“Trump admin policies have made it harder for children to be released from detention,” historian Dan Silliman tweeted. “People who want to take children are faced with lots of new requirements, including fingerprinting for people associated with the sponsor, and extensive background checks."