As It Happens

Trump spews 'pure and simple racism' as migrants suffer in U.S. camps: congresswoman

Norma Torres says Trump's tweets are hurtful and racist — but she's not going to be distracted from drawing attention to conditions at U.S. migrant detention camps.

Norma Torres describes 'heartbreaking' conditions at detention facilities in Florida and Texas

Rep. Norma Torres describes condition at U.S. migrant detention facilities as 'heartbreaking.' (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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Norma Torres says U.S. President Donald Trump's tweets targeting Democratic congresswomen are "pure and simple racism" — but they won't distract from her efforts to draw attention to what's happening at the U.S.-Mexico border. 

While Trump doubled down on his comments telling four Democrats to "go back" to where they came from on Monday, the California congresswoman was touring the migrant facility in Homestead, Fla.

Earlier this month, she visited other camps in Texas, where the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general found "serious overcrowding and prolonged detention."

Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens guest host Robyn Bresnahan.

If, as your colleagues suggest, the president's tweets are trying to distract from the conditions for migrants at the border, let's just take a moment to talk about those conditions. What did you see at the Florida detention centre that you visited?

The situation at the Homestead facility that I visited is heartbreaking, just to put it mildly. What these centres have become are warehouses for young children.

While the facilities, the bathrooms, may be clean, while they may have a bunk bed and a sheet and three meals a day, they still fall short from a child being able to grow up in an environment where they are with a family member, someone that cares about them, someone that can give them something other than a physical object — for example, a hug or advice on an issue that they may be having that day.

I talked to several of the young girls that were there. They were between the ages of 11 to 16 years old. They appear happy. They were smiling and waving at the members of Congress that were there. 

But when you get down and ask them the questions such as, "How long have you been here? How often do you talk to a family member? How did you enter the U.S.? Did you come with a family member? Did you come alone? And how was your experience at the initial border entry?" — then the tears begin to roll and their entire posture changes, which really is a telling story of the cruelty that is happening on our southern border when they first present themselves.

Children who have been incarcerated by Homeland Security are housed in tents in Homestead, Fla. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

And what are some of the answers you received to those questions? 

One girl specifically, she came in ... with a family member and her brother. They were separated at the border and, unfortunately, her brother went to a different facility than in the facility at Homestead where she was being detained.

Her brother had already been reunited with his father, who is here in the U.S. But this young girl was still in Homestead, Florida, awaiting the paperwork and the bureaucracy to work itself to release her to the custody of her father.

So she felt very alone. She felt left out. She felt, "Is there something wrong with me that my brother was released to my father and yet I am still here at this facility?"

That is part of the mental trauma that these children are suffering through.

You also visited border facilities in Texas earlier in the month, along with three of the Democratic congresswomen who had been targeted by Donald Trump in those tweets. What were the conditions like there?

Those visits were very, very difficult for anyone. I was a state legislator in California. I have done a lot of work around prison issues and overcrowding in California.

But to see young, tender-age children in a jail cell without an adult in the cell with them, just supervising themselves, not being able to talk to them, not being able to reach out and touch them — that was really difficult.

Migrants are seen outside a U.S. Border Patrol station in a makeshift encampment in McAllen, Texas, on May 15. (Loren Elliott/Reuters)

How old are these kids?

They looked pretty young.

The one who really caught all of our attention was a little boy. He must have been between three or four years old or so. And the reason why he caught our attention is because as soon as we walked in, what we began to hear is this little tap on a window. So we looked over to where he was, and it's this little body, this little child, in a group sitting with other kids.

Most of us are mothers and we ran there and sort of got down and started tapping back. And what he was saying was, "Papa, papa." At least we believe that that's what he was saying. His lips were certainly moving in that manner.

But there was no adult there. So if that child needed to use the bathroom and needed help getting wiped after using a bathroom, or if he was hungry, who would that child tell that to? I mean, is that child supposed to tap on the window and try to get the attention of an agent? Is that child supposed to talk to another child that is a total stranger from him?

This March 27 photo shows Central American migrants waiting for food in a pen erected by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to process migrant families and unaccompanied minors in El Paso, Texas. (Cedar Attanasio/The Associated Press)

This is such a stark difference compared to what we heard from Vice-President Mike Pence when he visited some of those same facilities in Texas. I mean, he said that the families and the children that his delegation spoke to ... were being treated well. You were hearing and seeing something different. So what did you make of his comments?

I thought his comments were really a message that has been sanitized by the White House in an effort to cover up the reality of what is happening.

Certainly, we saw the photos — whether they were staged or not — of the vice-president inside of these facilities. When he was there, they were severely overcrowded. 

But yet, you hear the statement coming out of him saying ... how these asylum seekers were being treated is something that Americans should be proud of. And you know, I disagree with that. I strongly disagree with that.

That's not what I see. 

U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence tours the Donna Soft-Sided Processing Facility in Donna, Texas. (Veronica G. Cardenas/Reuters)

[On Tuesday] a new rule comes into effect that ends protections for migrants who have failed to claim asylum in the countries that they have passed through en route to the United States. ... What impact do you think it will have?

The impact of this new rule will be beyond Central America, will be beyond the Northern Triangle. This will have a global impact on any refugee seeking asylum in the United States of America.

Congresswoman, just a final personal question to you. You were born in Guatemala. How do you feel about the president's comments about going back to where you came from?

It is pure and simple racism.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.