El Paso, Texas (KXAN) — A group of federal and state lawmakers visited Customs and Border Protection border holding facilities on Monday. Austin-area State Representative James Talarico was among them.
Talarico said he had been invited along by U.S. Congressman Joaquin Castro.
The representatives visiting the facilities were not allowed to bring their phones or any recording devices inside, but Talarico could describe what he remembers from the visit.
“It was traumatizing, you saw children and women being held in tiny jail cells with, you know, seven or eight, people in one cell, hard concrete floors, with only a small thin government- provided sleeping bag, no bed, no furniture, just a thin sleeping bag on a cold hard floor,” he said, speaking with KXAN by phone Tuesday.
He clarified that the El Paso CBP holding center which held women and families had the thin sleeping bags, the holding center in Clint which held children had cots for them to sleep on.
Talarico was told that the El Paso facility had 85 people there when he came to visit and he was told that 300 women were being held there just last week.
At the facility holding children in Clint, Talarico said that there were only 25 children on Monday. That facility has a maximum capacity of 106 “which seemed a very high number for such a small facility, I was struck by how tiny it was,” Talarico said.
Officials moved out more than 250 of those children from the facility recently following national concerns for the health and safety of children staying there. On a call a week ago, an official with CBP told reporters that unaccompanied children should not be held in their custody and that their facilities were designed decades back to hold adults for short periods of time.
Talarico said he learned that women and children are being separated from grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and siblings because they don’t fit the federal government’s definition of a family unit. Talarico believes this narrow definition of family is harming the people coming into these facilities.
“I mean, the only standard Texans should use for these facilities in our state is: would we allow our own children, our own grandparents, to stay in these facilities? And the answer is a resounding no and that’s the problem,” Talarico said.
“This is a stain on all of our reputations and it requires moral courage and clear action from each and every one of us,” he added.
Talarico talked with mostly Border Patrol agents at the facility. The representatives were not allowed to speak with the people being held there.
“I have to say, these Border Patrol agents were very honest that they felt like the situation was wrong and needed immediate action to remedy it,” Talarico said. “They were just concerned that they were personally being vilified when they — at least what they expressed to me — they felt like they were very much between a large rock and a hard place.”
For Talarico, this is an indicator that the system is broken.
“This is a national problem, it’s a statewide problem, this is not just for border legislators or Mexican-American legislators to deal with,” Talarico said.
He became interested in visiting these facilities after hearing from many of his Williamson County constituents — Republicans and Democrats — who are concerned about conditions there.
He noted that many of his constituents shared with him stories of their own families immigrating to the United States. His family immigrated to the U.S. from Italy 100 years ago.
Talarico acknowledged that as a state official he has less power than U.S. representatives to impact immigration. However, he sees ways that Texas representatives can make a difference.
“We’re sending almost a billion dollars to the border out of our state budget for increased border security,” he said. “The question we discussed with Border Patrol agents is: are you seeing this funding and is it helping to alleviate the situation that you’re facing? The answer was no.”
“Where is this money being spent?” Talarico asked. “Is it being spent on fancy gunboats that look good in campaign ads or is it helping with the basic logistical needs that our border patrol agents are facing when trying to manage this humanitarian crisis?”