“Unconscionable & Unacceptable”: Rep. Barragán Decries Detention of Migrant Children in Prison Cells

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Yazmin Juárez, the Guatemalan mother whose child died from a lung infection after being held in an ICE detention center, testified before members of a congressional panel Wednesday. She shared the story of her daughter, 19-month-old Mariee, who died last year shortly after being released from the South Texas Family Detention Center in Dilley, Texas. Juárez filed a $60 million lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Patrol and the Department of Health and Human Services. The House subcommittee convened to examine the treatment of refugees in U.S. detention, just over a week after lawmakers flocked to the U.S.-Mexico border to observe the horrible treatment of refugee children and families in immigration jails amid reports of continued unsafe and unsanitary conditions for asylum seekers. Meanwhile, NBC reports that migrant children jailed in Yuma, Arizona, have been subjected to mistreatment and sexual violence. We speak with Democratic Rep. Nanette Barragán from California, who recently visited detention centers in Texas. She’s the second vice-chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and serves on the House Committee on Homeland Security.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The New York Times is reporting the Trump administration is preparing to launch nationwide immigration raids, beginning on Sunday, to target members of undocumented families. Officials told the Times that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents will target at least 2,000 immigrants. The raids are expected to take place in at least 10 major cities. The Times reports authorities might detain immigrants who happen to be on the scene, even though they were not targets of the raids. President Trump first publicly threatened to carry out the nationwide raids in June but then postponed them.

This comes as Trump’s immigration policies are coming under international criticism. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has condemned the dire conditions in which jailed migrants are being held in the U.S. and the ongoing separation of children from their families. She warned that the detention of migrant children may constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment that is prohibited by international law.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, congressional lawmakers have decried the conditions where migrant children are being held. The New York Times and the El Paso Times recently revealed there’s been an outbreak of scabies, shingles and chickenpox at a Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas, where hundreds of migrant children have been held without access to sufficient food, water, beds or medical care.

We go now to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Democratic Congresswoman Nanette Barragán of California. Last week, she took part in a congressional delegation that visited that Border Patrol facility in Clint, Texas.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Congressmember. It’s great to have you with us. We’ve just gotten this news of the outbreak of scabies and shingles and chickenpox at that very facility that you visited. Can you describe what you saw?

REP. NANETTE BARRAGÁN: Well, Amy, there is cells, much like you’ve seen in some of these advertisements that the Border Patrol is doing. There’s about five or six cells where they’re holding children. Now, when we went, they locked the doors so that we could not talk to these children. These are basically prison cells. They’re concrete floors. They’re bringing in nylon-looking bunk beds. Maybe you get a blanket. But you’re locked in a room. If you go to a separate area in the back, after you leave the cell area, there’s a place that looks almost like a warehouse. And it’s hot in there. There are more of these nylon bunk beds. And then there’s a whole stack of mats ready for children. Now, when we went, Amy, there was only about 25, 30 children. At the height, they had 700 children, and reports of children who couldn’t sleep and couldn’t find a place to even lay down. Completely unconscionable and unacceptable.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Congressmember, were you able to speak to the children or any of the people who are being detained?

REP. NANETTE BARRAGÁN: No. When we got there, we very clearly were told, “You cannot speak to the children. There is to be zero conversation.” Now, when we walked into the area where the prison cells are—that’s what I call them, there’s five or six of them—there was a door that had like plexiglass, and it went down pretty low. So, you had a small boy, must have been 3 or 4 years old, run up to the plexiglass, in which case some of us got on our knees to be able to be face to face with this little boy. He was putting his hands up against the plexiglass to try to touch you, to say hello, try to communicate with you. You could see he was asking for his father. It was really heartbreaking to see what was happening. And we were not allowed to go into these cells and talk to the children.

AMY GOODMAN: But there was video from a congressmember and chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Joaquin Castro, who recorded video on his cellphone during the visit to Border Patrol facilities in El Paso, Texas. The San Antonio Democrat said he refused to relinquish his phone to border agents, to take video of detained immigrants and asylum seekers. In one video, you can hear Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaking to women in Spanish. If you can describe how the guards also responded, and respond to President Trump’s tweet, where he said what you’ve described on the border in these various facilities is untrue? He said the people in the facilities that are jailed are “very happy,” and their condition in these jails, child jails and otherwise, are far better than from where they came from.

REP. NANETTE BARRAGÁN: Well, the location where the video was taken was right before we got to Clint. And, first of all, with the president’s tweet, it’s an outright lie. I have been there firsthand plenty of times. When I was there several months ago, I saw firsthand the overflow. I saw people packed into these prison cells. And so, it is completely untrue. It’s completely false, what the president is saying. I would bet that he hasn’t been to these locations and these places to see for himself how packed it is and to see the despair in people’s eyes, the face of desperation. We got mobbed by women and their children asking for help. It is so heartbreaking to be there and to hear that and to not be able to say, “Let me help you. Let me do something to relieve this pain and to put you in a better situation.”

The law enforcement officers that we were with, that gave us this tour, were very different this time around than they had been a couple of months ago when I went. Last time I went, they let me speak to the individuals, the parents. They let me even take a phone in. They let me take a photo with nobody’s faces. This time around, very different. They confiscated telephones. They said, “You’re not even allowed to talk to adults.” And they tried to prevent us from doing that. Now, as members, sometimes we’re told that. We get there, and you try to talk to them. I speak Spanish, for example, and we’ll try to just talk to them in the corner, and, in this instance, demanded we be allowed to speak to the detainees, and just heard their stories and their cries for help.

And let me tell you why it’s so critically important that members of Congress be able to speak to the detainees. Because what you hear from officials on the guided tour, what they want you to see and what they tell you, is very different than when you start speaking to the detainees. We have had instances where they tell you they’re getting plenty of diapers, they’re getting this, but when you talk to the women, to the mothers, they will show you rashes from their children. They will tell you they’re not getting enough diapers. They will tell you they’re not getting the medical care that we’re being told that they’re getting.

And so, you can see photos of them show you toothbrush and diapers. That doesn’t mean it’s getting to the detainees or that they’re being treated in a fair and dignified manner so that they can get a shower and they can be clean. We saw people who had not been cleaned, who had not showered, several months ago. It was days on end. And it’s disturbing.

Everybody in this country should be outraged about how we are treating women and families and children and people who are escaping violence, coming here for asylum, which is legal in the United States.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, on Capitol Hill, House lawmakers heard heart-wrenching testimony Wednesday from the Guatemalan mother of a toddler who died after she became sick in an ICE jail near the U.S.-Mexico border. Yazmin Juárez says her 18-month-old daughter Mariee was healthy when she brought her to the U.S. in March seeking political asylum. But one week after the pair were jailed at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, the girl developed a cough, diarrhea and vomiting, with a fever that spiked at 104 degrees. Juárez says her daughter received inadequate medical care in a clinic set up in the center’s gymnasium. After their release, Juárez rushed her daughter to the emergency room. She spent six weeks in hospital before she died of complications from a deadly lung infection. During her testimony, Juárez explained how she was treated by immigration officials.

YAZMIN JUÁREZ: [translated] After the interview, the ICE immigration official asked me why, for what reason, I had come to the United States. I responded that I had come for my child’s future. But they practically didn’t let us talk. And he said, in these words, “You know this country is for Americans, that Donald Trump is my president, and that we can take your daughter away from you and lock you in jail.” And I remember I just started to cry, because I really didn’t have any words to respond to them. To me, that is mistreatment.

I am here today because I don’t want any more little angels to suffer the way Mariee did, the way I am now. I don’t want any more mothers or fathers to lose children. It can’t be so hard for a country like the United States to protect children.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And this is more of what Yazmin Juárez told lawmakers on Wednesday.

YAZMIN JUÁREZ: [translated] All the hard work of these doctors came too late. My Mariee died on Mother’s Day, on the day that in my city, in my country, we celebrate Mother’s Day. When I left the hospital that day, all I had with me was a piece of paper with Mariee’s handprints in pink paint, that the staff had created for me. It was the only thing that I had left, just her handprints. The nurses had made it the previous day as a Mother’s Day gift.

There are days I just want to give up, because, for me, it is very, very hard to see so many children and for none of them to be my daughter, and to think that I will never see her again or hug her or enjoy being with her or tell her just how much I love her. For me, that is very hard. You have no idea how hard it is to move forward without my little girl. They tore out a piece of my heart. They tore out my soul. And now I am suffering, and it is difficult for me to get up and move forward. I wanted a better future for her, to work hard and get ahead, so that she could keep growing the way that she was. I can’t do that now. I can’t do that because she is gone.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, that was Yazmin Juárez speaking to lawmakers on Wednesday about her daughter, who died just after being released from detention. Now, last year—in the last year, six children have died in custody. And, of course, this little girl died just after she was released. And before last year, no child died in a decade. So, Congresswoman, could you comment on what’s been happening in these facilities and why so many children have died?

REP. NANETTE BARRAGÁN: Well, first, it’s absolutely heartbreaking to hear the account of Ms. Juárez yesterday and her daughter. And this is what should move our lawmakers in our country to act, so that they’re not treated inhumanely. It’s just an outrage.

We—you know, I’m almost speechless for words on what’s happening. When you see the pattern of how these children are being treated, when you see the Flores decision, where—when children are being held longer than the 72 hours, when you hear the words of those in the administration about deterrence and how they’re trying to deter, it’s hard. It’s hard not to think that this is being done in a situation—in a manner to make it as difficult as possible, as painful as possible, on how these children and how these families are being treated, to try to deter people. And it’s outrageous.

We should not ever resort to violating human rights and practices to try to deter people from coming to this country. And that is what this administration has been focused on. It’s their anti-immigration agenda. It’s finding ways to deter people. And so, they’re slowing down the process, and that’s why we have so many people right now in these prison-like conditions, that they’re turning people away at ports of entry, and that alone is killing people, because then their desperation, when they’re waiting in Mexico, which is violent, and people are experiencing just horrific situations there—they then come and travel between the ports of entry. Some of them are ending up in the Rio and dying.

But in the facilities, when they get to this country and they’re in these detention centers, they’re not getting the treatment that they need, and they’re not being processed out quickly enough. Part of that, I believe, is because of the administration’s slowdown in processing people. We need to get more immigration judges. We also—we need to invest in alternatives to detention. And this is something the administration has cut back on. They would rather jail people and house people, children and families, instead of allowing them to be reunited with their families here in the States. We know that. They have said that. And the result has been overcrowding. The result has been that people are being—they’re getting sick, and then they’re going to die. I said that months ago, when I saw the situation firsthand. I walked out of there, and I said, “People will die if this continues.” You cannot put sick children in a room with other sick children. It’s going to spread. That is common sense.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Congressmember, let me ask you about the growing rift, the increasingly public dispute between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and four freshman congresswomen, who are known as “the squad”—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley. Pelosi recently told The New York Times, “All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world. But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.” Yesterday, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told The Washington Post, “When these comments first started, I kind of thought that she was keeping the progressive flank at more of an arm’s distance in order to protect more moderate members, which I understood. But the persistent singling out—it got to a point where it was just outright disrespectful—the explicit singling out of newly elected women of color.” Can we get your response to this? Because, certainly, it has intensified over the whole issue of immigration.

REP. NANETTE BARRAGÁN: Yes. There’s a lot of tension going on, certainly when the House supplemental bill came up versus the Senate supplemental bill came out. We were fighting to get provisions, guardrails and provisions in there, so that we could have some accountability and some oversight. When you’re just handing out a blank check, it doesn’t feel good. And then you see what’s happening at the border, and it only then intensifies why we were fighting so hard to get these provisions in and these guardrails, as I like to call them, in. And so, this has been the result of some disagreement within the party on whether you give a blank check, whether you put the guardrails in there or not. You know, I did not support, in the end, the Senate’s version of the bill, because it had no oversight provisions. It didn’t have the very critical things that we needed as just a first step. And so, this is going to be an ongoing issue.

AMY GOODMAN: $4.6 billion.

REP. NANETTE BARRAGÁN: Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about your response to Congressmember Ocasio-Cortez calling for the Department of Homeland Security to be dismantled. Here, she’s being interviewed by The New Yorker magazine editor-in-chief David Remnick. And he asked her if DHS should be abolished.

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: I think so. I think so. I think we need to undo a lot of the egregious—a lot of the egregious mistakes that the Bush administration did. I feel like we are at a very—it is a very qualified and supported position, at least in terms of evidence and in terms of being able to make the argument that we never should have created DHS in the early 2000s.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Barragán, do you agree? Do you feel the Department of Homeland Security should be abolished?

REP. NANETTE BARRAGÁN: You know, I happen to sit on the Committee for Homeland Security, and homeland security is really big. And I think that is the problem. It oversees everything from the Secret Service, all FEMA rescue and recovery. It does human trafficking. It does, you know, CBP officers at the ports of entry, airports and seaports, that are protecting this country from terrorist threats. So it is very big. And within that, you then have ICE, and you have enforcement happening.

And so, there does need to be serious look at how do we restructure this, how do we break this up, how do we make it so that it’s not so big and unmanageable. And we have seen that in various hearings in homeland security on the inability to see this really large agency—it’s the largest law enforcement agency, that does so many factors. So, I have serious concerns with enforcement and ICE right now, and I think we certainly need to look at how do we fix these systemic problems and how do we restructure it so that it’s not what it is now, which is a lot of abuses of people’s rights and violations of human rights at the border.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, the raids that apparently are about to take place, President Trump threatened them several weeks ago. Now it’s being said, The New York Times is reporting, Sunday, major immigration raids, that people will be picked up who may be just in the area, in 10 major cities. Can you tell us what more you know? I mean, as a congressmember, you have oversight. Do you know about this in places like in your home state, in California, in Los Angeles?

REP. NANETTE BARRAGÁN: Well, we had a call—the Hispanic Caucus had a call about three, four weeks ago, when the first reports were out that these were going to happen. We had a call with officials from homeland security about these reports. They wouldn’t confirm or deny that they were going to happen, which, to me, led me to believe that they were going to happen. They wouldn’t confirm or deny locations. But what they did say was exactly what’s being reported, that they have targeted enforcement operations; however, they are going to pick up anybody along the way who they encounter.

And this is a problem, because this is why we have a funding issue. This is why there is so much disorganization within that department, because there is no more priorities. Instead of focusing on violent felons, they’re focusing on everybody. And when you have no focus, it makes it that more challenging.

So, I am telling constituents to be alert, know your rights. So important right now that we go out and we tell people about resources to know their rights and not open the door and to making sure that we’re all vigilant. It’s deeply concerning and troubling that the president and this administration are continuing to cause fear in our communities, which is making it unsafe.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you agree with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who, in the last threat of these deportation raids, said on Twitter, “No Angeleno should ever have to fear being snatched from their home or separated from their loved ones—we are doing everything we can to provide immigrant families with info and support ahead of the announced ICE deportation sweeps,” saying that the local authorities will not cooperate with ICE. Do you say the same, that the local authorities in California should not cooperate with ICE around these deportation raids?

REP. NANETTE BARRAGÁN: I do agree. I do agree with the mayor on this. And we have to make sure that we are conveying this message to our communities right now, that we stand with them. You know, ICE is a federal agency. And until they have a better system in place—and right now they have nothing, complete disorganization—we’re going to continue to stand firm on this. This is wrong, and we are going to give as much information as we can to our immigrant and migrant family members and community members. It’s pretty devastating to see the fear that’s being caused.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Nanette Barragán, you’re a well-known ballplayer in Washington—as in baseball, softball—member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, but also I wanted to ask you about the women’s soccer team, their enormous second win. And the chants that went on yesterday through the Canyon of Heroes at the ticker tape parade, yes, they said “U.S.A.!” and they added, thousands of specifically girls, “Equal pay!” Your thoughts on this and what Congress can do?

REP. NANETTE BARRAGÁN: I think it’s so great to see the women go out there and win. And I’m totally behind the effort of equal pay. You know, as you alluded to, I’m one of the two women in Congress who play on the men’s baseball team. We need to be on the same level, get paid the same, be treated the same. I am so proud of women’s soccer and what they’re doing right now to be the inspiration for young girls across this country. And so, I am so glad to see that. We are going to continue the fight in Congress for equal pay. That is something that is impacting communities of color at a disproportionate rate, as well. So, we have a lot of work to do. And we need everybody on our team, including the U.S. women’s soccer, to stand with us. And they are at the forefront of this fight.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, the women’s soccer team is headed to the Capitol. They haven’t been invited to the White House by President Trump, even though they’re the winningest soccer team, but Nancy Pelosi has invited them. We’ll cover that.

But when we come back, we’re going to look at what the U.S. women’s soccer World Cup win means for equal pay and for the future of Title IX. Stay with us.

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The U.S. Women’s Soccer World Cup Win Was a Victory for Title IX & the Fight for Equal Pay

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