'Heartbreaking': Republicans slam Biden for migrant influx, while Democrats call on Biden to quickly move children to sponsors
By Rebecca Morin and Savannah Behrmann
WASHINGTON – Groups of lawmakers visited the U.S.-Mexico border Friday, as the Biden administration continues to come under fire by both Republican and Democrats for the influx of migrants at the southern border.
Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, both of Texas, led a group of more than a dozen Republican senators to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. That area is seeing some of the largest numbers of migrants crossing into the United States.
The lawmakers received a briefing by officials on the situation at the border, toured the Customs and Border Protection Facility in Donna, Texas, and took a boat tour in Mission, Texas. The group also received a nighttime border tour by the National Border Patrol Council in Mission on Thursday.
"John and I were able to bring 18 senators down to Texas, down to the Valley, to see firsthand the crisis that is unfolding here," Cruz said in a press briefing Friday. "All of us today witnessed the 'Biden cages.' What is occurring here on the border is heartbreaking, and it is a tragedy."
Separately, Rep. Joaquin Castro, D- Texas, and a group of Democratic House members toured the Carrizo Springs, Texas, temporary influx facility for children that is run by the Department of Health and Human Services.
"We want to find solutions for this situation," Castro said during a press conference after touring the Carrizo Springs facility. "We want to figure out how this system can work better, so that it's more humane, more respectful of people's dignity, and ultimately achieves its goal which is to give people their day in court to be considered for asylum."
Republicans and Democrats have called the situation on the border a “crisis,” a term the White House has refused to use. President Joe Biden on Thursday said “a vast majority” of migrants coming to the U.S. are being sent back.
“If you take a look at the number of people who are coming, the vast majority, the overwhelming majority of people coming to the border and crossing are being sent back,” Biden said during a press conference.
“Tens of thousands of people who are, who are over 18 years of age and single… have been sent back, sent home.”
An increased number of migrant children are being accepted into the United States, leading to overcrowding in short-term, jail-like facilities run by Customs and Border Protection, including in facilities in the Rio Grande Valley.
The Biden administration has struggled to move children quickly out of those facilities and into those run by Health and Human Services, like the facility in Carrizo Springs. By law, children are supposed to be moved out of CBP facilities within 72 hours.
Biden announced Wednesday that Vice President Kamala Harris is taking the lead in mitigating migration at the border by working with Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
As of Thursday, Health and Human Services had 11,900 unaccompanied minors in its care, while another 5,156 children were in CBP custody.
The CBP facility in Donna, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley, has been heavily criticized for overcrowding.
In photos released earlier this week by the Biden administration, children could be seen sleeping on mats on the floor, with foil blankets.
No media has been allowed to visit the CBP facilities, with the administration citing COVID-19 restrictions. Cruz criticized the Biden administration in a letter earlier this week, saying requests for media access to the Donna CBP facility were ignored.
The senators who accompanied Cruz and Cornyn to the Rio Grande Valley, where they tooka boat tour in Mission, Texas, included:
• Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.
• Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo.
• Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa
• Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine
• Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
• Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.
• Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.
• Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah
• Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.
• Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont.
• Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla.
• Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska
• Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.
• Sen. John Kennedy, R-La.
• Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss.
• Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind.
• Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala.
Many of the senators who visited the Donna facility shared videos and photos.
Lankford posted a video Friday morning from the Donna facility showing overcrowding, with children sitting or lying down with the foil blankets wrapped around them. The Biden administration has repeatedly said it istrying to quickly move children out of the facilities and noted that they are not made for children.
In a press conference following their boat tour on the Rio Grande, the senators with Cruz and Cornyn criticized Biden's policies for the influx of migrants at the border, saying that reversing Trump-era policies led to the increase.
Graham, who was a member of the Gang of Eight — a group of bipartisan senators who attempted to pass bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform in 2013 — specifically slammed Biden for ending the Migrant Protection Protocol, which forced migrants to wait in Mexico for their court hearings and for altering Title 42, allows Customs and Border Protection to expel undocumented migrants to prevent the spread of the virus in holding facilities.
"When they say this is Trump problem, they're lying. This is a problem of their own making," Graham said.
Under both MPP and Title 42, migrants were often forced to stay in dangerous, border towns in Mexico, where many were subject to violence or exploited by local cartels.
Cruz described the conditions at the Donna facility as "inhumane." In a photo he shared on Twitter, a group of children were lined up after testing positive for COVID-19. Another photo shared by the Texas senator showed young children in a small playpen, where they were lying on mats with the foil blankets.
"What we saw were young people crammed in like sardines, something none of us would want for any of our own children," Barrasso, of Wyoming, said at a press conference.
The senators also urged Biden and Harris to come visit the border to see the conditions for themselves.
Biden on Thursday said that he has not yet gone to the border because he does not want to "become the issue."
In Carrizo Springs, nearly four hours north of Donna, the facility houses several hundred unaccompanied migrant children. A second HHS facility in Carrizo Springs will open up to help transfer children out of CBP custody.
White House officials and members of Congress earlier this week traveled to the Carrizo Springs facility.
One network, NBC, was allowed to tour with them.
Children wait in the HHS facilities while sponsors or family members are vetted, which could take days or weeks.
The lawmakers that accompanied Castro to the Carrizo Springs facility include:
• Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif.
• Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn.
• Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif.
• Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif.
• Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-Virginia
• Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich.
That group toured the Carrizo Springs facility for several hours, where they also spoke with children.
During a press conference following their visit, the lawmakers stressed the most important goal should be getting the children out of the facilities, and reunited with family members in the states.
HHS is trying to set up more temporary influx facilities, with the help of FEMA. Several new facilities will be located at the Freeman Expo Center in San Antonio and at the San Diego Convention Center in San Diego. Castro noted that while conditions in the HHS facility are better than the CBP facilities, the lawmakers want the children to be quickly moved to be with their sponsors.
Castro did not comment on Cornyn and Cruz's trip to the Rio Grande Valley, beyond saying, "I don't know what their purpose is." He added that he opened his trip to the Carrizo Springs facility up to lawmakers other than Democrats.
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., who fled civil war-torn Somalia with her family when she was 8 and spent four years in a refugee camp before moving to the U.S., said she saw herself in the children she talked to at the facility.
“I, myself, was a child who fled, like these kids, unconscionable violence," Omar said.
When asked what message they would send to the president, the lawmakers said the immigrant-children “who are seeking help”, said they would tell Biden they are humans, too.
“‘I just want to be treated with dignity,’” Omar told reporters the children had said to her.