Vice President Mike Pence visited an over-crowded and foul-smelling border facility in south Texas on Friday packed with nearly 400 immigrant men held in sweltering cages without mats or pillows where some said they had been detained for more than 40 days.
The men, held in "sweltering hot" conditions at the McAllen Border Patrol station, told reporters they were hungry and wanted to brush their teeth, according to the White House press pool which visited the facility with the vice president. "The stench was horrendous," a reporter said, and some of the border officers guarding the cages were seen wearing face masks.
The temperature in McAllen, Texas, hit 99 degrees on Friday, with a heat index above 110 degrees.
Pence also visited a tent-like temporary detention facility in Donna, Texas, that holds unaccompanied children and immigrant families. The new and mostly clean facility stood in stark contrast to the McAllen station Pence later visited.
One man near the front of the fence told reporters repeatedly, “Cuarenta dias, cuarenta dias” or “40 days” in Spanish. He held his hands in front of him putting four fingers up in one hand and making a zero with the other to make sure his message got across.
Yet another could be heard saying, “No agua,” or “No water” in Spanish.
The cages were so crowded that it was not possible for all the men to lie down at the same time, the pool reporter said. "There were no mats of pillows — some of the men were sleeping on concrete," he said.
In a statement after his visit, the vice president's office said it had specifically instructed Customs and Border Protection to not clean up or sanitize the facility beyond what is routine. "So the American people could see how serious the crisis at our border is (overcrowding, lack of resources, beds)," it said.
At a press conference, Pence called for additional beds in Immigration and Customs Enforcement jails and said the situation was the reason he had called for more funding for the Department of Homeland Security.
“I was not surprised by what I saw,” Pence said. “I knew we’d see a system that was overwhelmed.”
Border authorities said water was available outside the caged area at the station, adding that the men could leave and get water when the press wasn't there. Reporters were pulled out of the area within 90 seconds, the press pool said.
Michael Banks, the agent in charge of the McAllen station, said the men were allowed to brush their teeth once a day and said the longest any man had been held there was 32 days.
The men detained at the McAllen station were given three hot meals a day from local restaurants, along with juice and crackers, Banks said. But the men were not given cots because there was not enough room for them to sleep inside the fenced area.
The visit comes after several months of authorities apprehending record numbers of immigrants at the border, many of them asylum-seekers from Central America, and detaining them in facilities originally designed to hold single men from Mexico that could be quickly deported. Last month, DHS said it saw a 28% decrease in apprehensions compared with May across all demographics.
The drop in overall apprehension numbers in June, however, may not have been enough enough to alleviate conditions that have plagued areas like south Texas.
A Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General report documented adults and children held at several Texas facilities without access to showers, many adults fed only bologna sandwiches, and detainees banging on cell windows — desperately pressing notes to the windows of their cells that detailed their time in custody.
The report followed findings from the inspector general's office which found immigrants being detained in "dangerous," overcrowded standing room–only cells, with some standing on toilets to get breathing space.
After the release of the findings and other reports of “horrifying” conditions inside border detention facilities, President Donald Trump defended the treatment, saying immigrants were "living far better" than in their home countries.
“Our Border Patrol people are not hospital workers, doctors or nurses,” Trump said in a series of tweets blaming Democrats for the conditions. “Many of these illegals aliens are living far better now than where they came from, and in far safer conditions.”