Slotkin seeks basic necessities for migrants held at border

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — Freshman Rep. Elissa Slotkin introduced a bill this past week to require basic accommodations for migrants held in short-term custody, saying the federal government can both "secure our borders and treat migrants humanely." 

Current law requires only food and water be provided to migrants, but Slotkin, a Holly Democrat, wants to expand that to include access to bathroom and shower facilities, appropriate nutrition, hygiene, personal grooming items and sanitation needs. 

Rep. Elissa Slotkin

She said the bill is in response to the photographs and findings by the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general, who described "dangerous" overcrowding at Border Patrol facilities in Texas where prolonged detention of migrants without proper food, hygiene or clean clothes requires "immediate attention and action."

"It became pretty urgent to figure out something we could do that would enshrine the type of humanitarian response that we all expect from our customs and border officials," Slotkin said Friday at the U.S. Capitol. 

"Given everything going on, we just felt it was important to delineate that it's food, water, shelter, appropriate sanitation and hygiene, and make explicit what was what many of us feel is implicit in a response that the United States should be having." 

Slotkin, who has called for greater oversight for border facilities, said the legislation will be marked up this week in the House Homeland Security Committee, on which she sits. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi approached her on the House floor Friday to say Slotkin's bill was discussed at a leadership meeting and that she expects it to pass before the August recess, Slotkin said.

Other legislation is forthcoming to address more border issues, including codifying the length of time and conditions under which federal officials can detain immigrant children, Slotkin said.

"Holding children for over 72 hours — that's illegal," she said.

"You're seeing a bunch of members just really try to shore up everything we can to make clear that the treatment of people at the border and the humanitarian conditions are not a kind of aspirational thing," she added.

"They are actually something that they required either by law or by regulation to provide."  

Vice President Mike Pence toured migrant detention facilities in McAllen, Texas, on Friday, including one where some of the nearly 400 men packed behind fences shouted to reporters that they'd been there 40 days or longer, were hungry and wanted to brush their teeth. 

The men did not have enough room for all to lie down on the concrete floor of the hot room, which smelled of body odor, and the only water was outside the fences so that the men had to ask Border Patrol agents for a drink. 

“I was not surprised by what I saw,” Pence said later at a news conference, according to a pool report. “I knew we’d see a system that was overwhelmed.”

“This is tough stuff,” Pence added.

He said he was calling for Democrats to fund more detention beds and had pushed for more Homeland Security spending because of the situation, including the $4.6 billion humanitarian aid package that he negotiated.

Michael Banks, the agent in charge of the McAllen situation, told reporters the men are allowed to brush their teeth once a day. He said they were given deodorant after showering but conceded many of them had not showered for 10 or 20 days because the facility previously didn’t have showers until a trailer shower arrived Thursday. 

Banks said the longest any man had been there was 32 days and claimed the facility was cleaned three times a day. He said the men are each given a Mylar blanket because with cots there would be no room for them all to sleep.

Slotkin is taking a trip this week with a bipartisan group of colleagues to the Texas border, where she wants to hear from Customs and Border Protection officials that they are "willing and capable of complying fully with the law," she said. 

Other Michigan members of Congress have visited migrant detention facilities in the last month, and Rep. Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township, was at the U.S.-Mexico border this past weekend to inspect conditions at several DHS facilities near McAllen and Brownsville. 

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, testified Friday before a House committee about her July 1 trip to a facility in Clint, Texas. She showed a drawing that appeared to be of people in cages by one of the children held at a migrant camp in McAllen. 

"I've been so deeply haunted by the unforgettable image of a 4-year-old boy coming up to me at the glass door of a cell he was in and ask me in Spanish where his Papa is," Tlaib said. 

"The fear in their eyes won't be forgotten, Mr. Speaker, but the suffering in these illegal camps cannot be forgotten."

Tlaib last month was one of four Democrats who voted against the $4.6 billion border aid package meant to tackle the surge of migrants at the Southern border, saying she would "not throw more money at a broken system."