Washington – The national immigration debate has turned the southern border into a popular destination for members of Congress, including several Minnesota lawmakers from both parties who report being shocked by what they saw.
“I’d seen the photos and read some accounts,” said Rep. Dean Phillips, a Democrat. “I anticipated I’d see difficult conditions, but what I saw was almost indescribable. I couldn’t believe that, in my own country, that people were being kept in the ways that I saw.”
Phillips’ most recent trip to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas was on July 19, where he and a bipartisan group of House members inspected ports of entry, a Border Patrol station, a centralized processing center and the border itself. It was his second visit in a period of less than two months, following a conversation with Rep. Pete Stauber about his own visit in there in April.
“I said, ‘Dean, don’t take my word for it. You have to go and see for yourself what’s happening there,’ ” said Stauber, a freshman Republican from northeastern Minnesota.
Immigration and border security has become among the most divisive issues of a politically polarized era. President Donald Trump’s border policies and immigration rhetoric have enraged Democrats, while the administration and its allies see their opponents as too eager to extend government benefits to those who cross over illegally.
Between Phillips’ first and second visits, Trump signed $4.6 billion in emergency aid to help relieve the crisis at the border. Ahead of that approval, Democratic members of the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus had pressured Speaker Nancy Pelosi to bring up that legislation for a vote despite objections from some more liberal House Democrats.
Two members of the Minnesota delegation voted against the border aid bill, Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minneapolis and Betty McCollum of St. Paul. Many in the left flank of House Democrats were critical of the measure, because in their view the Trump administration bears the greatest responsibility for the crisis and thus shouldn’t be trusted with additional federal dollars meant to mitigate it.
Phillips and Stauber are both members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, which backed the border spending. With an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, caucus members have charged themselves with finding middle-ground solutions to major issues. Phillips’ July trip was made up entirely of members of the Problem Solvers, and he and a Republican lawmaker from Pennsylvania are now leading an effort to draft immigration and border security legislation that can win support from both parties.
“It so affected me that I felt I had a responsibility to provide some leadership on an issue that many said you should be careful about diving into,” said Phillips, a freshman who represents the Third District in the suburbs west of Minneapolis.
Phillips described what he saw upon his first visit, in early June, to several facilities around McAllen, Texas: “Massive overcrowding. Cells holding people including children, sealed cells, standing-room-only cells filled to capacity. Indoor and outdoor holding facilities in the heat — 107 degrees on my first day there, oppressive humidity. People kept behind fences, young children, many times babies, inadequate restroom facilities, people sleeping on floors without even a mat. Just abhorrent conditions for human beings.”
Stauber said he saw similarly poor conditions. “I went to a detention facility; it was meant for 245 or so immigrants, and there were over 1,100,” he said.
Phillips visited some of the same spots on his second visit and said he did find some improvements: “significantly reduced overcrowding, expanded facilities, air conditioning, cleaner conditions, mats for everybody, more restrooms, baby-changing stations, more resources generally.”
Others in Minnesota’s congressional delegation have also made recent visits. McCollum went in mid-April with fellow members of the House Appropriations Committee to tour Department of Homeland Security facilities in El Paso, Texas; San Diego and Los Angeles. The delegation also crossed the border to visit migrant shelters in Juarez, Mexico. Sen. Tina Smith joined fellow lawmakers at several facilities in Texas last December.
“I can’t emphasize enough what horrible, soulless, cold places that these facilities are,” Smith said. “You could see some people working there were trying to make it as good as it could be, but fundamentally what you have are little kids living in prisonlike circumstances.”
Both Smith and Phillips said they talked to migrants who shared stories of fleeing their homelands under threats of violence and persecution.
Phillips said Congress should devote more money to infrastructure needs at ports of entry, further improve conditions at detention facilities, train U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents on how to better care for migrants under their supervision, and “make sure laws are being followed and that all humans are being treated with care and compassion.” But he also hopes the Problem Solvers Caucus can push changes to immigration and asylum laws, identify the root causes behind the migrant wave, and work with the countries they’re leaving to improve the conditions that are driving people to leave in the first place.
“We all saw this,” Phillips said of he and fellow members of Congress. “We saw these moments, visited with people, and I hope it opened a little space to sit down dispassionately, apolitically and perhaps find solutions more as human beings than anything else.”