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Congresswoman describes life in migrant detention: 'In some cases it felt like a third world country on our side of the border'

Emily Cadei, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- California Rep. Doris Matsui confirmed some of the worst accounts of the border patrol centers housing migrant men, women and children who've crossed over the southern border, after visiting two facilities in Texas last weekend.

"It was just really kind of surprising in a way you can't steel yourselves for," Matsui, a Democrat in her 9th term in Congress, told McClatchy in an interview. "In some cases it felt like a third world country on our side of the border."

Matsui and a delegation of 19 other Democratic House members traveled to McAllen and Brownsville, Texas to visit Customs and Border Patrol processing centers as well as humanitarian organizations working with migrants seeking asylum in the United States. Matsui was born into a U.S. internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II. Her late husband, the former Congressman Bob Matsui, was also placed in one of the camps as a small child.

The Department of Homeland Security's Inspector General released a report earlier this month that detailed "serious" overcrowding and squalid conditions in border patrol processing facilities in South Texas.

Among other things, Matsui said she saw children lined up inside of concrete cages, waiting to pick up a mat to rest on. Customs and Border Patrol told the members of Congress "they need the concrete cages for security," she said.

"It was cold, they said they needed to keep it cold because of the smells and things like that," Matsui added. "And also they keep the lights on all the time."


The Democratic congresswoman said it was clear the border patrol agents "were not equipped" to handle the influx of migrants coming over the border, primarily families from Central America. The processing centers are meant as temporary holding places for the migrants, who are then released to local family or friends, turned over to long-term facilities managed by the Department of Health and Human Services, or sent back to their home country.

But the sheer numbers of people coming from Central America has overwhelmed the existing system, causing lengthy delays in processing migrants and keeping them detained in Border Patrol facilities not designed for such long-term residents.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan testified before a House committee Thursday that while the number of people attempting to cross the border is falling, "the border flows and custody situation remain beyond crisis level."

"We are still seeing 2,500 crossing a day, mostly families," McAleenan added.


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