Eric Gay / AP
Saturday, June 28, 2014 | 2:55 p.m.
The squalid conditions for thousands of unaccompanied youth immigrants being held at the U.S.-Mexico border is an international humanitarian crisis, said Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev.
Horsford toured a southern Texas detention facility Saturday where hundreds of children are being held as immigration officials struggle to cope with a recent wave of tens of thousands of mostly Central American children trying to cross into the U.S. alone.
“If this were happening really anywhere else in the world, it would have already been classified a refugee humanitarian effort,” said Horsford, a Democrat representing North Las Vegas.
Horsford was appalled by what he saw: About 50 children crowd into bedroom-size cells, where they sleep on concrete floors, sans mattresses or blankets. Young mothers hold their crying infants. Flustered Customs and Border Protection officers help change diapers and serve meals. A young boy, perhaps 8 or 9 years old, received hospital treatment for swine flu and sat alone in a quarantined cell.
“No child, regardless of where they are in the world, should be in the conditions of what I just saw,” Horsford said by phone after touring the facility.
Lawmakers in Washington, D.C., are undecided about how to respond to the roughly 50,000 unaccompanied minors who have risked their lives since October to try to enter the U.S. illegally; a 90 percent jump from last year.
House Republican leaders such as Speaker John Boehner have called for increasing border security. Other Republicans blame President Barack Obama’s immigration policies for some for the influx.
Democratic leaders such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., continue to pressure House Republicans to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation. The Obama administration has called for more judges and lawyers to help these children navigate the years of complex deportation proceedings that await them.
Horsford said Saturday that he thinks addressing the humanitarian crisis in the detention centers should be lawmakers’ first priority. The border patrol officers he spoke with rejected more reinforcements and urged lawmakers to find a way to get the children out of detention centers so the officers can return to their jobs guarding the border.
“I think at this point, we need to address the issue before us,” Horsford said. “… This is an immediate crisis that cannot wait.”
Horsford said he’ll return to Washington after the Fourth of July holiday to try to push for protective refugee status for the children. Such legal status would afford them better living conditions when they first arrive.
“We need resources so that these kids can be released to an environment that is more conducive to handling children,” Horsford said. “… I mean, right now they are literally in a jail cell.”
Compounding the problem is a backlog to process these children out of detention centers — where immigration officials place the children after apprehending them at the border — to refugee specialists in the Department of Health and Human Services who try to connect the children with family members already in the U.S.
U.S. law requires the children be held no more than 72 hours in a detention center, but Horsford said officials at the Brownsville facility he toured said most children are being held there an average of 102 hours.
Horsford said he and the congressional delegation he traveled with, which included House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Texas Democratic Reps. Ruben Hinojosa and Filemon Vela, did not get to talk with the children about their nightmarish journey to the Texas border.
But he said immigration officials told the delegation that many of the children are fleeing violence and trafficking threats in their home countries and hope to be reunited with a family member living in the U.S. legally. There’s no telling how many others died on the journey, they said.
Horsford called for lawmakers to set aside the politicized immigration reform debate and find a way to take care of the children living out a humanitarian crisis in our own country.
“This is a situation that again goes beyond what we should allow,” he said. “… These are children who are trying to escape very dangerous environments … and all they want is a chance to live and survive.”