Senior Democrats touring migrant detention facilities on Monday called for the immediate firing of Customs and Border Protection agents who joked about migrant deaths and posted vulgar images of freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez among a secret Facebook group.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, led by Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), condemned the “derogatory and sexist comments regarding immigrants and members of Congress” and called for a full investigation by the Department of Homeland Security as well as the officers’ removal.
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Castro and other Democrats vowed to scrutinize the agents’ Facebook posts as part of a congressional tour of border facilities in Texas, where lawmakers spoke to mothers with young children who had been detained there, and learned of what they called unacceptable conditions.
“Unfortunately, there are many within [Customs and Border Patrol] who have become desensitized to the point of being dangerous to the migrants in their care,” Castro said at a news conference in Clint, Texas, after touring the town’s notoriously overcrowded facility for migrants. “I expect there will be a congressional investigation to get to the bottom of it.”
The tour — which was organized by Border Patrol officials and required lawmakers to give 48 hours’ notice — did not show overcrowding or poor conditions. But lawmakers said migrants who spent time there told a different story.
“They went out of their way to show us facilities that were mostly empty,” Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Texas) said in a phone interview after the tour. “They tried to show us orderliness, cleanliness. But when members of Congress spoke to people that were being detained in the holding cells, that’s not what they described… They described being deprived of daily showers and certain other rights.”
The trip comes after a group of Democrats — including many on the trip — fought unsuccessfully to force the White House to adopt stricter protections for migrant families as part of a divisive border funding bill that passed the House on Thursday.
But by Monday, Democrats were reacting to a new crisis within the Border Patrol agency: Facebook posts by current and former agents who mocked dead migrants — including the recent photo of a drowned father and daughter — and referred to Ocasio-Cortez and other Latina Democrats as “hoes” ahead of their trip to a Border Patrol facility. The Facebook group was initially reported by ProPublica.
Members of the group posted multiple illustrations of Ocasio-Cortez in suggestive positions, including one that depicting President Donald Trump. One person also urged the Border Patrol agents to hurl a “burrito at these bitches,” referring to Ocasio-Cortez and another freshman Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas).
The agency announced Monday afternoon that it had informed the inspector general of the “disturbing” Facebook group, opened an investigation and that employees who participated in the posts would face consequences.
“These posts are completely inappropriate and contrary to the honor and integrity I see—and expect—from our agents day in and day out. Any employees found to have violated our standards of conduct will be held accountable,” Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost said in a statement.
Several top Democrats, including Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), said the agents should be fired for their “vile comments” in the private Facebook group, which has existed for three years and has roughly 9,000 members that appear to be both current and former agents, according to ProPublica. There are 19,437 current Border Patrol agents, according to a May 2019 agency document.
“It is truly abhorrent and shameful, and there is no excuse for this depraved behavior,” Thompson said.
But Ocasio-Cortez dismissed the idea that agents would be held accountable after the in-person response she received when touring a detention facility in El Paso on Monday afternoon.
“I see why CBP officers were being so physically & sexually threatening towards me. Officers were keeping women in cells w/ no water & had told them to drink out of the toilets,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted.
“It’s not just the kids. It’s everyone. People drinking out of toilets, officers laughing in front of members Congress,” she added. “I brought it up to their superiors. They said ‘officers are under stress & act out sometimes.’ No accountability.”
Ocasio-Cortez was among dozens of progressives who fought for a $4.5 billion humanitarian aid bill last week that included several provisions to protect migrant children flooding the border — including a policy that would allow members to visit detention facilities unannounced. Ultimately, Speaker Nancy Pelosi relented and passed the Senate’s version of the emergency aid package, which did not include the additional language.
The group of Democrats visited the facility in Clint after a group of lawyers described the “public health emergency” happening at the detention center. The Associated Press story detailed hundreds of migrant children forced to live in horrific conditions at the Clint center, where many reported they had gone weeks without access to adequate food, baths or clean clothes.
Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives fought efforts last week to pass the Senate’s aid bill, saying without further accountability for federal agencies running the detention facilities and caring for the children, the humanitarian aid was unlikely to have a significant impact.
She reiterated those criticisms after visiting the border on Monday, adding that one woman described her treatment in the U.S. facilities as “psychological warfare,” such as waking them up in the middle of the night or being called “whores.”
As Ocasio-Cortez and other Democrats attempted to share their findings Monday, the group was bombarded by protesters, many donning pro-Trump attire, who repeatedly interrupted them to hurl insults at the members of Congress.
Several shouted “liar” or booed when a Democratic lawmaker stood at the mic. They also yelled retorts like, “What about the kids in Planned Parenthood who are getting killed?” or “Close the f–king border down.”
Veasey, who was also harassed by the protesters, called the behavior “ugly” and racist.”
“It was bad. They were using foul language, inappropriate language to dehumanize members of Congress,” Veasey said.
At one point, freshman Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) stood at the podium and shouted back at the protesters.
“Keep yelling,” Pressley said, struggling to be heard above the shouts. “This is very appropriate. Vile rhetoric for vile actions. Hateful rhetoric for hateful behavior. Racist words and venom for racist policies,” Pressley said.
Rishika Dugyala contributed.