With ICE sweeps looming, immigration rhetoric heats up on Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON – With deportation sweeps expected to start in major cities this weekend and footage of migrant families held in what critics call “deplorable” conditions at the border, immigration rhetoric heated up Friday on Capitol Hill.

Hispanic Caucus members blasted planned roundups this weekend by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, telling of frightened families and children who fear they may come home to empty households next week.

“This is an attempt to intimidate immigrant and Latino communities across the country,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas. “Everybody should take extra time to know their rights if they are approached by ICE or by federal agents.”

On the other side of the Capitol, meanwhile, a hearing on immigrant detention facility conditions turned into a partisan brawl.

Democrats testified about “cruel” and “traumatic” conditions at the detention centers where migrant families are held while Republicans charged Democrats with putting on a show for the media and living in a “parallel universe.”

Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, said that in “my world, the real word,” the detention centers are overcrowded but that no one is drinking out of the toilets, one of the charges leveled by Democrats and other critics.

“We’re talking past each other,” Lesko said after the House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing. “We need to get to the root of it so we don’t have all these thousands of people here.”

It comes as new numbers from Customs and Border Protection show a steep decline in the number of people stopped at the southern border, with apprehensions falling from 144,278 in May to 104,344 in June.

Migrant families crowded into a Border Patrol facility in McAllen, Texas, in June. An audit said overcrowding is just one problem threatening the safety of detainees and officers. (Photo by Office of Inspector General/Department of Homeland Security)

But even with that 28 percent drop, this June’s numbers were more than twice as high as last year. And, with three months left in fiscal 2019, total apprehensions reached 780,638 in June, well above the fiscal 2018 total of 521,090.

The crush of immigrants, many of them families with children, has led to “dangerous overcrowding” at detention centers, according to a report this month by the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General.

That report urged the department to “take immediate steps to alleviate dangerous overcrowding and prolonged detention of children and adults” held in facilities in Texas. Problems included overcrowding, scarce resources and migrants being held too long, conditions that “represent an immediate risk to the health and safety of DHS agents and officers, and to those detained,” the report said.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, testified Friday that while visiting the detention centers, she spoke with women who had to sleep on concrete floors, were fed unhealthy foods and told to drink out of toilets.

“It is a policy of dehumanization implemented by this executive administration,” she told the committee. “What’s worse … was the fact that there were American flags hanging all over these facilities. That children were being separated from their parents in front of the American flag, that women were being called these names under an American flag, we cannot allow for this.”

But Lesko called Ocasio-Cortez “over-the-top dramatic” and questioned whether Democrats are using the crisis as a “political talking point” instead of working to solve the problem.

Democrats “all the sudden think Trump and his administration are causing the problem,” Lesko said, adding that they are “going around saying this is terrible, but they have no solutions.”

“For years, we’ve tried to come up with a solution for illegal immigration and for the most part Democrats are opposing at every turn,” she said.

President Donald Trump sounded a similar note Friday, charging Democrats have refused to negotiate on the immigration crisis, while confirming that ICE would begin rounding up people with deportation orders this weekend.

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“It starts on Sunday, and they’re to take people out and they’re going to bring them back to their countries,” Trump said in response to reporters’ questions Friday. “We’re focused on criminals as much as we can, before we do anything else.”

But when asked about the impact the sweep could have on families, Trump said, “You know what? They came in illegally. They have to go out.”

Critics like Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, said Trump’s ICE sweeps “are nothing more than a cruel show of force meant to spark fear in immigrant communities.”

“Instead of addressing the humanitarian crisis he has created, Trump is separating more families and worsening conditions at already-overcrowded detention centers,” Gallego said in a statement released by his office. “This is yet another attempt to manufacture chaos in order to divide Americans and rev up his base before the 2020 election.”

At the Hispanic Caucus news conference, lawmakers blasted the ICE sweeps and urged immigrant communities to be prepared.

“This is clearly a dark time in our history, but we are prepared to assist our constituencies,” said Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-New York. “This is a nation of immigrants and we will continue to fight back.”

He and others at the event said they are working to educate families on their rights and on how to respond if ICE agents knock on their doors.

Espaillat displayed a card telling people that “If an ICE agent comes to your home, you do not have to open your door,” that they have a right to ask to see a search warrant, and noting that a deportation warrant is not the same as a search warrant. Advocates have shared the list on social media with the hashtag #KnowYourRights.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, said immigrants are “part of the rich cultural heritage of Southern Arizona, and we will stand by our values and oppose the Trump administration’s anti-American, anti-family values policies.”

“President Trump will stop at nothing to sow fear and chaos among America’s immigrant families, and these raids are his latest attempt to link his horrific border policies to families who have lived in the United States for decades,” he said in a statement. “The time has long since passed for the administration to stop the raids and the separation of families and instead, reunite them.”

-Cronkite News video by Miranda Faulkner