WASHINGTON/NEW YORK - President Donald Trump's administration on Tuesday pushed back against mounting criticism of its migrant detention centers on the U.S.-Mexico border, even as the Department of Homeland Security's internal watchdog issued a report detailing serious overcrowding at some facilities in Texas.
Conditions at these detention centers have become a flashpoint since May when an internal DHS watchdog warned of dangerous overcrowding at a facility in El Paso, Texas.
In a follow-up report issued on Tuesday after visits to five U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency facilities and two ports of entry, the watchdog said "serious overcrowding" and "prolonged detention" of children, families and single adults had been observed.
Members of a visiting congressional group on Monday said the migrants, many coming from Central America, were being kept in deplorable conditions and, according to U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, told to drink out of toilets.
"I don't know what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is talking about," White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said in an interview with Fox Business Network, calling members of CPB "some of the bravest men and women on the planet."
"They put their lives in danger every single day. They provided three meals a day to people who are here illegally and unlawfully, two snacks in between," Gidley said.
The Democratic chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform announced that the panel has invited the acting heads of the Department of Homeland Security and CPB to testify on July 12 on the administration's border policies including the conditions at detention centers.
"The Trump administration's actions at the southern border are grotesque and dehumanizing," Elijah Cummings said in a statement. "There seems to be open contempt for the rule of law and for basic human decency."
Trump has made a crackdown on illegal immigration a centerpiece of his domestic policy agenda and 2020 re-election bid. But his efforts to build a wall on the southern border have been blocked in Congress, and he was forced last year to backtrack after his "zero tolerance" border policy of separating migrant children from their parents provoked widespread outrage.
The detention facilities have become an issue among Democratic candidates vying to face Trump in the 2020 presidential election.
U.S. Senator Cory Booker would "virtually eliminate immigration detention" if he wins the White House, his campaign said Tuesday, including ending the use of for-profit detention facilities and minimizing the time unaccompanied children were in custody.
Migrant rights protests
Dr. Lisa Ayoub-Rodriguez, a Texas pediatrician who has been providing health care to migrant families, said she recently saw a mother suffering from dehydration with a baby whose fingers and toes were still blue after time in a detention center.
"I asked her if in CBP custody she had been given water. She said no. I asked her if she asked. ... She said no. She didn't want to be a bother or a burden, she said," Ayoub-Rodriguez told a news briefing in El Paso alongside other doctors who help migrants.
"I see this often in the population. This is a population that's afraid to ask for help," Ayoub-Rodriguez said.
Several hundred people gathered Tuesday in New York City to demonstrate against the Trump administration's treatment of migrants, part of a planned nationwide day of protests by rights groups targeting members of the U.S. Congress.
The demonstrations were fueled by fears that Trump's administration is preparing to move forward with a round-up of illegal immigrants in U.S. cities. Last month, Trump delayed the raids by two weeks.
Criticism of the CPB intensified after a report Monday by the nonprofit news site ProPublica detailing offensive content posted on a private Facebook group for current and former CBP officers that included jokes about the deaths of migrants and sexually explicit references to Ocasio-Cortez.
Senator Bernie Sanders, a top Democratic presidential candidate, on Twitter called the report was "horrific" and said the dehumanization of immigrants must end.
Ocasio-Cortez, a first-term New York Democrat who was part of a Congressional Hispanic Caucus visit to the border Monday, suggested in a Twitter post Tuesday that the CBP was a "rogue agency."
CBP condemned the Facebook group and acknowledged that the group may include a number of the agency's employees.
Reuters did not independently confirm the report.
The migration flows from Central America have dropped sharply since hitting their highest level in more than a decade in May, as Mexico deployed thousands of militarized police as part of a June 7 deal with the United States to avoid U.S. tariffs on Mexican goods and other enforcement measures.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Tuesday touted his country's success in curbing the migrant crush, three days after Trump praised Mexican efforts.
"I am grateful that even President Trump is making it known that Mexico is fulfilling its commitment and that there are no threats of tariffs," Lopez Obrador told reporters in Mexico City.