Acting homeland security secretary defends border conditions

FILE - In this Dec. 15, 2018, file photo, Honduran asylum seekers are taken into custody by U.S. Border Patrol agents after the group crossed the U.S. border wall into San Diego, Calif., seen from Tijuana, Mexico. Immigrant rights activists on Friday, June 28, 2019, asked a U.S. judge to block a new Trump administration policy that would keep thousands of asylum seekers locked up while they pursue their cases, instead of giving them a chance to be released on bond. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo, File)
A grandmother protesting the treatment of children in Border Patrol custody walks back to her car by a fence at a holding center in Clint, Texas, July 1, 2019. Yvonne Nieves, in her 50s, says she has a 2-year-old granddaughter. "I just couldn't bear the fact that there would actually be little kids out here not knowing where their parents are, not having anyone to take care of them," she said. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)
FILE - In this Feb.19, 2019 file photo, children line up to enter a tent at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Homestead, Fla. A government spokesman says President Donald Trump’s administration is evaluating vacant properties near five U.S. cities as potential permanent sites to hold unaccompanied migrant children. Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Mark Weber said Wednesday that property is being assessed in and around Atlanta; Phoenix; Dallas; Houston; and San Antonio, Texas. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)
Heidi Turpin, left, dressed as President Donald Trump, holds up a sign next to her husband, Jim, during a protest against detaining migrant children, Thursday, July 4, 2019, in Austin, Texas. (Nick Wagner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

WASHINGTON — Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan on Sunday defended conditions at U.S. Border Patrol stations following reports of crowded and unsanitary conditions that have heightened debate about President Donald Trump's immigration policy, a trademark issue for his re-election campaign.

"It's an extraordinarily challenging situation," McAleenan told ABC's "This Week."

The Homeland Security Department's internal watchdog provided new details Tuesday about severe overcrowding in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, the busiest corridor for illegal crossings. The report said children at three facilities had no access to showers and that some children under age 7 had been held in jammed centers for more than two weeks. Some cells were so cramped that adults were forced to stand for days on end.

Government inspectors described an increasingly dangerous situation, both for migrants and agents — a "ticking time bomb," in the words of one facility manager. The report echoed findings in May by the department's inspector general about holding centers in El Paso, Texas: 900 people crammed into a cell with a maximum capacity of 125; detainees standing on toilets to have room to breathe; others wearing soiled clothing for days or weeks.

McAleenan said that since the first of the year, 200 medical providers have been added to facilities, including personnel from the U.S. Coast Guard and the Public Health Service Commission Corps.

"We have pediatricians in border patrol stations for the first time in history trying to help address conditions where children are coming across 300 a day in ... April and May," McAleenan said.

"We've built soft-sided temporary facilities. These are spaces that are much more appropriate — high ceilings, more room for children and families. We've put them both in Donna, Texas, in South Texas as well as in El Paso to provide additional space. ... We've bought buses to transport people to better places."

McAleenan disputed news reports, including those by The Associated Press, of especially troubling conditions at a border station in Clint, Texas, where a stench was coming from children's clothing and some detainees were suffering from scabies and chickenpox.

"There's adequate food and water," he said. "The facility's cleaned every day, because I know what our standards are and I know they're been followed because we have tremendous levels of oversight. Five levels of oversight.

"Inadequate food, inadequate water and unclean cells. None of those have been substantiated."

He said everyone in the chain of command is worried about the situation of children detained at the border. He said that on June 1, his department had 2,500 children in custody, including 1,200 who had been there for more than three days. As of Saturday, McAleenan said there were 350 children, and only 20 have been in the department's custody for more than three days.

"So that's huge improvement based on the resources we asked for from Congress and were finally given," he said.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., told NBC's "Meet the Press" that he is stunned when administration officials say that reports on the conditions are unsubstantiated.

"I'm just like, 'What world are they living in?'" Merkley said, citing government and news reports. "From every direction you see that the children are being treated in a horrific manner. And there's an underlying philosophy that it's OK to treat refugees in this fashion. And that's really the rot at the core of the administration's policy."

Separately, McAleenan addressed questions about U.S. Border Patrol agents who are under fire for posting offensive messages in a "secret" Facebook group that included sexually explicit posts about U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and dismissive references to the deaths of migrants in U.S. custody. The existence of that group was reported Monday by ProPublica. Prior to that, few people outside the group had ever heard of it.

He said an allegation about such activity was investigated in 2016. "Discipline was meted out on an agent that made an offensive post on that website," he said.

People also read these

Diplomat's defection poses major PR problem for...

Aug 18, 2016

The defection of a North Korean senior diplomat in London poses a major problem for Pyongyang on a...

US says $400M to Iran was contingent on release...

Aug 19, 2016

The Obama administration says that a $400 million cash payment to Iran seven months ago was...

AP EXPLAINS: Who are the Philippines' communist...

Aug 20, 2016

Communist rebels in the Philippines have fought one of Asia's longest-running insurgencies

Many donors to Clinton Foundation met with her at...

Aug 24, 2016

More than half of the people outside the government who met with Hillary Clinton while she was...

APNewsBreak: Ohio literary peace award to...

Aug 24, 2016

Writer Marilynne Robinson is being honored with a lifetime achievement award that celebrates the...