‘I saw a mess’ – Migrant detention hits close to home for Texas lawmaker

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — A delegation of Democratic state and Congressional lawmakers visited facilities near the Texas border housing detained migrants. The July 1st visits came after reports of overcrowding and unsanitary conditions for mothers and children.

Concern about the detention center in Clint, Texas hits very close to home for one lawmaker on the visit. State Rep. Mary González is from Clint. The centers are in her Texas House district.

González spoke about what she saw on the visit and what she believes needs to happen now in an interview with Josh Hinkle for the State of Texas politics program.

GONZÁLEZ: “I saw a mess. A mess and a failure of our system. Kids who should never be detained. I saw families of 70 year-old grandmothers who were detained. I saw the ways in which the federal government really has created a problem that has then left these border communities, like my community to deal with this mess. I felt awful for what I was seeing.”

HINKLE: “You represent the district. This facility is in your hometown. What are you hearing from the people you represent who are seeing this on a daily basis?”

GONZÁLEZ: “To be honest, I’m hearing exhaustion. You have to realize that my district has been at the forefront of this issue for over a year. While everyone’s been engaged with the child separation, family separation and child detention issue now, a year ago Tornillo tent city was also put in my district where there were thousands of children in tents or huts. This is not something that is new to my district but we’re exhausted of it because we’re a rural farming community home of the most humble, loving, compassionate people and this is not what we want our community to be known for but that’s what we are known for. For being this forefront for political divide that has really damaged children and families and so we’re just ready for there to be changes for children and families because what we did learn on the tours is that this is a people made problem. Particularly an administration made problem. The changes in definitions, the changes in policies have created and resulted in what we see today.”

HINKLE: “Are your constituents saying let’s just figure out a way to get this fixed? Is it that simple? Are you feeling more sympathy with the migrants or are you feeling more sympathy with what the government is struggling with on how to solve this problem?”

GONZÁLEZ: “No, the solutions are there. When we went through the tour we saw all the solutions. For example, when they changed the rules that allowed for the detention of children–here’s what happened, I’ll give an example of Clint because that’s where I live. I literally live one mile from the detention center. When the federal government changed the rules and criminalized immigration in ways that it was never criminalized before what happened was, even when families came over they would separate the children from a tia, aunt or a grandmother, or a brother or sister. And so then, even when they say they’re ‘unaccompanied minors’ they’re not. They’re coming over with family, but because of the new rules they’re separated from their family. And then, because the federal government didn’t have any ORR beds, the processing and holding center in Clint we got overwhelmed and at a time had 700 kids when we were only supposed to have 120. So then, the border patrol station here in Clint kept telling the higher up, ‘we have a problem.’ We have too many kids please take them out. And they didn’t give them any resources, no beds not even enough tools. You have to realize that the detention center in Clint wasn’t a detention center, it was a processing center for people to stay a day. They didn’t even have a kitchen, how do you feed 700 kids without a kitchen? So here are these border patrol agents who are just trying to figure out how to make it work because the federal government failed. But there are things the federal government can do, they could redefine how we define families to keep more families together and get them out of the system together. They can redefine how we criminalize this, it can find more ORR beds so kids aren’t in holding facilities. There are lots of things we can do and all of it is a failure and all of it is root from changing the policies that have existed for the last ten years. I’m not saying immigration is working, but we are breaking it even more by putting kids, families and 70 year-old grandmothers in detention centers.”

HINKLE: “I saw on your Twitter feed, one woman kinda called you out along with other lawmakers – basically saying tweeting and writing letters isn’t enough – you need to do something. How did you respond to her?”

GONZÁLEZ: “It is hard in this moment to know what to do. Because I’ve been living this for a whole year. We’ve done the letters, we’ve done business, we’ve done the protests, we’ve done press conferences and we’ve done committee hearings. At some point you’re like, ‘what can I do to change the situation?’ But what’s the alternative, for me not to do anything? So I’m still going to keep sending my letters, I am going to keep doing my business and I am going to keep doing press conferences and conversations. That is the only way I feel that it will change. I will say this, when people got engaged in Tornillo, that’s when the Tornillo tent city closed. Enough people on both sides of the aisle got outraged and there was enough pressure for the federal government to move the Tornillo tent city. Now I’m hoping that with what people see now that there’s a failure of policy, they will re-engage and put pressure on the federal government to change these policies. We do not have to have kids in detention. The youngest kid in the Clint facility was 15 days old born to a teenage mother also in that facility. This is not the way that babies should be treated in our country.”

HINKLE: “A lot of people see this as a federal issue and that federal lawmakers need to do something. Do you think state lawmakers should be more involved? Should the Governor call a special session? Anything that can be done on the state level right now?”

GONZÁLEZ: “Considering this is a humanitarian crisis, I think we all should be involved whether you’re elected or not. All of us should care about the humanity of our country. So yes, I think state lawmakers should be involved. There are still things we can do, the state of Texas just sent 1,000 Texas national guard troops. Well I’ve been trying to ask, ‘how are we using those national guard troops?’ because there is a humanitarian way to use those troops. Like making beds for the kids so that the kids aren’t sleeping on cots, building better facilities. Even when we went to the border patrol station they said they needed help making all of the food. There’s ways to take care of the kids. State lawmakers can one, make sure that the way we’re using our state resources is addressing the humanitarian crisis and not contributing to the over-militarization of the border. B, the state spends $800 million a year to border security, re-divert those resources to fix the humanitarian crisis. C, some of these facilities that we put the kids in are licensed by the state. We should make sure that those licensed centers are still operating properly by doing regular site visits, by holding the agency accountable. There’s a lot for us to do and I believe that we should do as much as we can and more. It was hard to see the kids and the families in detention. We don’t have to have this type of immigration policy, we can say ‘we can do something different.’ If I were a governor I would be doing everything in my power to make sure that this isn’t what my state was known for, we’d be known for taking care of children and making sure that happened no matter what.”

HINKLE: “When you ask those questions about how are those National Guard troops being utilized, who are you asking specifically, and what kind of answers are you getting?”

GONZÁLEZ: “We’re still waiting for those answers. I think when the declaration was made there wasn’t a clear understanding of what they were going to be doing. So we haven’t gotten those answers but we have asked the agency and I’m happy to share them as soon as I get them.”

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