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Hundreds of migrant children detained in U.S. longer than first thought, report reveals

Democratic lawmakers revealed distressing new details Friday about migrant children separated from families at the U.S.-Mexico border as four of the party's star freshmen prepared to tell a House committee about the squalid conditions they saw at migrant detention stations.

Ocasio-Cortez, Democrats slam government on migrant centre conditions

A migrant child disembarks a U.S. Border Patrol bus at the processing centre and shelter in Deming, N.M., on May 27. House Democrats said in a new report that at least 30 migrant children remain separated from their guardians. (Adria Malcolm/Reuters)

Democratic lawmakers revealed distressing new details Friday about migrant children separated from families at the U.S.-Mexico border as four of the party's star freshmen prepared to tell a House committee about the squalid conditions they saw at migrant detention stations.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told a House-led congressional committee that the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border involving children and other migrants is needlessly cruel.

The freshman New York congresswoman was among four Democratic and four Republican lawmakers who offered sharply contrasting views about why the surge of migrants at the southern border has morphed into a humanitarian crisis at the House's oversight and reform committee.

Ocasio-Cortez called President Donald Trump's hardline policies "a policy of dehumanization."

"There is no need for us to do this," she said.

Republican lawmakers blamed Democrats for blocking sufficient aid to improve conditions, and posturing as helping while doing little.

Texas congressman Chip Roy accused Democrats of using their border trip to put on "a show in front of fences and the media" and of "vilifying" border agents for a problem they've not caused. He said by not toughening immigration laws, Democrats have "created the very magnet" that attracts migrants to the U.S. And then, he said, the Democratic-controlled House "cowardly sits in the corner, doing nothing" to address the problems that result.

Republican Andy Biggs of Arizona, said comparing the detention camps to Nazi concentration camps — a pointed swipe at Ocasio-Cortez, who has used the analogy — doesn't help solve the problem.

Texas congressman Chip Roy, a Republican, accused the Democrats of grandstanding for social media effect instead of offering practical solutions for the border. (Jacquelyn Martin/The Associated Press)

The testimony was timed to coincide with a study by House Democrats which provides new details on nearly 2,700 migrant children taken from their families last year when they were detained at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The report, based on data the panel demanded from federal agencies, found that 18 children under age two — half of whom were just months old — were kept from their parents for up to half a year. Hundreds were held longer than previously revealed, including 25 kept for over a year.

The report said at least 241 children were held in Border Patrol stations beyond the 72-hour legal limit, with some families broken up even though the parents ended up not being prosecuted. It said at least 30 children remain separated.

A Republican committee aide distributed a statement calling the report "political — not serious oversight" and said it ignored that nearly all the children were ultimately released to a parent or a sponsor.

Earlier reports and committee hearings painted an inchoate response to the policy, with untold numbers of migrants who were separated not tracked by the appropriate government agencies.

Republicans doubt Ocasio-Cortez account

Ocasio-Cortez in her testimony questioned the legality of administration tactics to deal with the issue, including metering — a process by which border officials at ports of entry limit the number of asylum seekers per day —  as well as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program, where the government is seeking to have increasing numbers wait out their claims in Mexico.

Immigration activists bristle at the plan, arguing that Mexico does not meet the criteria for a so-called safe third country given its crime rates.

While Ocasio-Cortez agreed with earlier testimony by Republicans that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers are working under difficult circumstances, she also pointed to a recent Pro Publica investigation which revealed a secret Facebook group of officers that contained demeaning posts about migrants and threats to the New York congresswoman herself and some of her Democratic colleagues.

 

She asked to be sworn in before speaking — not a requirement for members of Congress. Democratic committee chair Elijah Cummings of Maryland appeared taken aback by the request before agreeing.

Her request may have been related to the fact that Roy and other Republicans on the panel insinuated that Ocasio-Cortez was not being truthful when she reported last week that detained women at an El Paso detention centre she recently toured in Texas had been told by CBP officers to drink out of the toilet when they complained there was no available water.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was among four Democratic members of Congress to testify Friday. The New Yorker has used incendiary language to describe conditions at migrant centres, leading to criticism from Republicans. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Trump, too, doubted the account. He told reporters at the White House on Friday it was a "phony story" and that the congresswoman "made that up."

The president has said many migrants who've fled Central American are "living far better" in detention centres than they were at home and has said the stations are "run beautifully," though visiting lawmakers, attorneys, journalists and the government's own inspectors have reported foul conditions.

A report by the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general found "serious overcrowding and prolonged detention" of children, families and single adults at border facilities in Texas's Rio Grande Valley, the sector with the highest number of apprehended migrants in the country.

The report found that hundreds of children were being held longer than the supposed 72-hour limit and faced clothing shortages and a lack of hot meals, while some adults were detained for a week in a cell so crowded they had to stand.

The two political parties are locked in a bitter struggle over the treatment of the arrivals, whose numbers have recently surpassed 100,000 monthly, and progressive Democrats accuse moderates and party leaders of too readily compromising with Trump and Republicans on the issue.

We do have a crisis at our border. It is one of morality.- Rashida Tlaib, Michigan congresswoman

They've clashed over Trump's desire to build a border wall for much of the southern U.S. border — though early in his term he rebuffed a deal Democrats had agreed to that would have provided funding — as well as over his plans to tap into defence budgets and use military personnel to deal with the influx at the border, even though current legislation prevents them from interacting with migrants.

The parties have even argued over whether the situation at the border constitutes a crisis, after Trump earlier this year declared it a national emergency.

Democratic congresswoman Rashida Tlaib of Michigan said Friday: "We do have a crisis at our border. It is one of morality."

ICE raid expected this weekend

Congress last month approved a $4.6-billion US measure with money to improve border stations and migrants' treatment.

Since then, Democrats have launched a legislative offensive on the issue.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will soon work on one bill by Veronica Escobar of El Paso, tightening oversight of the Homeland Security Department and barring most family separations. Another by member of Congress, Democrat Raul Ruiz of California, would establish care standards for migrants being held.

President Donald Trump, left, affirmed immigration raids will take place this weekend, while accusing Ocasio-Cortez of concocting a 'phony story.' (Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press)

Senate Democrats introduced their own legislation Thursday curbing family separations and setting health and treatment standards.

The hearing comes as Trump promised a nationwide immigration enforcement operation targeting people who are in the United States illegally that will begin Sunday.

 

The sweep has sparked outrage and concern among immigrant advocates. It's set to target people with final orders of removal, including families.

Trump said Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers are focusing on criminals.

He said authorities are specifically looking for those he calls "bad players." But he said the operation also is targeting people who came into the U.S. illegally, and he says that's not fair to those who've been waiting for years to become citizens through a legal process.

With files from CBC News

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