"Kids in cages": House hearing examines immigration detention as Democrats push for more information

U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, told a migrant whose daughter died shortly after being in federal custody that "there are no words" for what happened to her child. But he also said Democrats' claims that kids are kept in cages is an attempt to "score political points."

U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, shown at a 2018 campaign event, said at a congressional hearing Wednesday that he's "never seen a kid in a cage," while touring federal facilities where migrants are held.

A Guatemalan woman who alleges her daughter died of a viral lung infection after “neglect and mistreatment” in a U.S. immigration facility told a congressional panel Wednesday that she begged medical staff for help, only to watch the giggly child turn weak, feverish, thin.

“My baby grew sicker every day,” Yazmin Juárez, the mother of 19-month-old Mariee, said during an emotional hearing. “She was vomiting constantly. ... I saw her suffer in a way you can’t imagine.”

Juárez has said that Mariee died last year shortly after she was released from Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in Texas after authorities failed to properly diagnose her symptoms and allowed a treatable infection to become deadly. Juárez, who has filed a wrongful-death claim against the U.S. government, said she came forward to raise awareness about conditions in U.S. facilities, saying that “the world should know what happened to my Mariee.”

The afternoon hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties — “Kids in Cages: Inhumane Treatment at the Border” — reflected the incendiary tensions between Democrats and the White House over the influx of families and unaccompanied minors at the border. Among the witnesses were lawyers and advocates who described squalid, cramped conditions at U.S. border facilities. Their reports have stoked outrage among those who believe the Trump administration’s immigration policies have led to children lingering in holding cells that weren’t designed for long-term detention, in the care of border authorities who are ill equipped to care for minors.

Rep. Jamie B. Raskin, D-Maryland, the subcommittee’s chairman, said the detention conditions violate federal and international laws.

“There is no excuse for our government being so unprepared and indifferent to refugee flows that have been steadily mounting for months,” Raskin said. “We would not accept these conditions for refugees anywhere else in the world.”

Texas Rep. Chip Roy of Austin, the subcommittee’s top Republican, offered his condolences to Juárez and said in Spanish that “there are no words.” But he accused Democrats of attempting to “score political points” by claiming children are held in “cages” while in U.S. custody at the border.

“I’ve been to the border many times, and to this day I have never seen a kid in a cage,” Roy said, adding that both parties should work to solve the crisis at the southern border. “We demean the process and our Border Patrol agents ... when we call them cages.”

Several children have died after being taken into federal custody at the border in the past year. Some arrived with preexisting medical conditions, but government watchdogs have recently slammed the Department of Homeland Security for dangerous overcrowding and unsanitary conditions in Border Patrol holding cells. The recent passage of a $4.6 billion border bill in part aims to improve conditions by providing additional money for food and medical care.

Wednesday’s hearing addressed the spectrum of holding facilities for children, which vary widely.

Border Patrol facilities are typically migrants’ first stop in federal custody and usually are air-conditioned, bare-bones cells that are not supposed to hold anyone for more than 72 hours.

ICE, another Homeland Security agency, has family detention facilities on sprawling, rural compounds. Those have showers, beds, cafeterias, infirmaries and immigration courts — or the ability to provide remote access to immigration courts for deportation hearings. The maximum capacity is about 3,000 beds, though under current rules, officials cannot detain children in such facilities for more than 20 days because they are not state-licensed facilities.

U.S. authorities said Wednesday that ICE had 244 family members in custody, mostly in Dilley, which has space for 10 times that many detainees. The vacancies worry advocates for immigrants, who fear the Trump administration plans to fill the beds during planned mass arrests of migrant families. Approximately 1,000 detention beds had been set aside at Dilley for new detainees, a DHS official said last month.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services oversees shelters exclusively for unaccompanied minors, who must be released to a parent or another vetted sponsor, meaning some stay for weeks or months. Such shelters are not meant to be akin to jails and have typically included educational and recreational opportunities to the children they hold. HHS recently cut off some of those services, citing budgetary challenges; the additional government funding for border security and migrant care restarted the programs.

No Trump administration officials testified at Wednesday’s hearing, but former acting ICE director Ronald Vitiello appeared at the request of Republican committee members. Vitiello retired in April after President Donald Trump pulled his nomination to lead the agency; Trump said he wanted to go in a “tougher” direction on immigration enforcement.

Vitiello, a 30-year veteran of the Border Patrol before he led ICE, said he supports changing U.S. law to allow the government to detain families longer and to more quickly return unaccompanied minors to their native countries in Central America — moves he sees as removing incentives to cross the border illegally in the first place.

Otherwise, he said, “next spring, we’re going to be in exactly the same place that we are now if the law does not change.”

He said expanding family detention under the Obama administration reduced border crossings.

“I get it, people don’t want to do immigration detention,” Vitiello said, noting that it was an effective deterrent. “The traffic dried up. People stopped coming to the border with their children.”

The crush at the border eased slightly in June, with monthly border apprehensions falling 28% amid heightened enforcement in Mexico. But apprehensions remain far higher than in the previous two years. The White House is urging Congress to expand its legal authority to detain and deport families and unaccompanied minors, largely as a deterrent to unfettered migration. Most families taken into custody have been released into the United States to await immigration hearings because of legal limits on how long the government can detain children.

Trump also is pressuring Mexico to host more asylum-seeking families until their court dates and is planning raids aimed at arresting families with final deportation orders in Houston, Los Angeles and other cities “fairly soon.”

Juárez, who is seeking asylum in the United States, said border facilities are unsuitable for children. She said that after crossing the border, she and Mariee spent several days in a cold cell with about 20 other people, sleeping on a concrete floor. Then officials took them to the ICE family detention center in Dilley.

She said Mariee was healthy until they were “packed” into a room with five other mothers and children — 12 people in all — and one sleepy little boy with a cough and a runny nose. Soon, Mariee had the same symptoms.

Juárez said she repeatedly “begged” the facility’s infirmary staff for help. Sometimes she was given medicine and sometimes she was turned away. After the 20-day legal limit for holding children, she and her daughter were released to join Juárez’s mother in New Jersey.

Juárez said she quickly took Mariee to the doctor and then to the hospital, where the girl stayed until her death on May 10, 2018, Mother’s Day in Guatemala.

An ICE spokeswoman said the agency does not comment on pending legal claims but noted that ICE “takes very seriously the health, safety and welfare of those in our care.” The agency spends nearly $270 million a year on health care.