U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine said she and her colleagues saw upsetting scenes of children and families in cages, and met breastfeeding mothers whose babies had been taken from them, during their congressional tour of detention facilities in southernmost Texas on Saturday.

“Being inside the facilities was heartbreaking,” Pingree told the Press Herald via telephone after visiting the McAllen Border Patrol Station in the morning. “They are in these rooms that are like cages, with tinfoil blankets, having no idea where they are going and what comes next.”

Later, after visiting the Los Fresnos Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center, Pingree posted a video message in which, holding back tears, she said, “It was everything horrible we expected.” She said she had met a dozen mothers whose children or breastfed babies had been seized by federal agents and were distraught.

“Frankly every member of Congress was in tears, people were hugging, it just didn’t feel like we were in the United States of America,” she said. “It really was unthinkable.”

Pingree also visited a children’s detention facility, the Casa Presidente in Brownsville, which houses children from infants to age 17 who had either been taken from their parents or had entered the U.S. alone. She told the Press Herald by telephone that it was clean and appeared well run and staffed, but that officials there had received no new instructions on how to go about reuniting children with their parents.

Pingree, who represents Maine’s 1st District, and 24 Democratic congressional colleagues were in Texas’ Lower Rio Grande Valley on Saturday to inspect federal detention centers where migrant children separated from their parents are being held.

At the McAllen facility, Pingree said the staff members they spoke to didn’t know the answers to many questions they had, including where girl detainees were sent after being separated from their parents, or how some 2,500 children will be reunited with their parents.

“It just felt like a horrible way to treat human beings,” she said in a telephone interview from the ICE bus taking the lawmakers to tour the Los Fresnos facility, an hour’s drive to the east. “It doesn’t feel like it represents the legal system we believe in in America.”

A U.S. Border Patrol Agent walks between vehicles outside the Central Processing Center on Saturday in McAllen, Texas. Members of Congress toured the facility Saturday morning. Associated Press/David J. Phillip

In the days preceding the trip, Pingree expressed concern about reports that caregivers have not been allowed to hug or comfort distraught children; that the children have been given sedating drugs; and that federal authorities have inadequate tracking systems for the children, making it difficult to reunite them with their families, especially if the parents have been deported while their children remain in detention in the U.S.

Pingree announced Thursday that she had joined 59 Democratic colleagues in signing a letter demanding that the Department of Homeland Security provide detailed information on the whereabouts and treatment of women, babies and children now in detention, including what services were being provided to pregnant women, how infants taken from breastfeeding mothers were being fed, and what precautions were being taken to avoid children being abused.

UPROAR OVER TRUMP POLICY

The trip was planned before President Trump reversed course Wednesday and signed an executive order ending family separations, a move that followed a public uproar over his administration’s policy. The trip is hosted by two members of Congress from the Lower Rio Grande Valley region – which borders on the Mexican state of Tamaulipas – but most of those attending are members of the House’s Democratic Women’s Working Group.

Trump campaigned for the presidency on a promise to be tough on immigration, and to build a wall over the entire length of the 1,954-mile U.S.-Mexico border to deter illegal crossings. His administration’s child separation measures were an outgrowth of the “zero-tolerance” policy Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in May, saying parents crossing the border illegally would be prosecuted and perhaps held separately from their children.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat who represents Maine’s 1st District, is shown at the border crossing between Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros, Mexico, on Saturday. Photo courtesy of U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree's office

Amid mounting public criticism, the administration gave conflicting accounts of the purpose of the policy, its existence, and the means by which it could be reversed. But on Wednesday, Trump signed the hastily drafted executive order temporarily ending the practice, but leaving questions of how or whether to reunite families that had already been separated up in the air. The Washington Post reported Friday that the Justice Department and Customs and Border Protection have interpreted the order’s meaning in entirely different ways, and received little guidance on how to proceed.

MAINE DELEGATION UNITED ON ENDS

All four members of Maine’s congressional delegation have come out in opposition to separating families and in support of reuniting children with their parents, but have not been unified in their legislative response. Sen. Angus King, an independent, joined all 48 of his colleagues in the Democratic caucus to support California Sen. Diane Feinstein’s bill to ban the practice and ensure reunifications, while Pingree and 193 other House Democrats are backing the companion bill in their chamber. Republicans control both chambers, however, and have shown little indication of supporting either.

Maine Political Report



Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin announced Friday he was co-sponsoring a new House bill, the Family Reunification Act, which would have a similar goal. Congressional sources say it’s too early to tell what its prospects are, as the bill was only introduced Thursday. His spokesman, Brendan Conley, said via email that Poliquin was open to supporting other bills “and is ready to work with Democrats and Republicans on a bipartisan measure to address this.”

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has introduced his own bill to address the situation, but neither Democrats nor Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, have signed on to it, leaving the Senate stalemated with two partisan bills. Collins joined 12 Republican colleagues in a June 19 letter asking the Justice Department to stop family separations “until Congress can pass legislation to keep families together.” Her spokeswoman, Annie Clark, said Collins has been trying to broker a bipartisan solution that could become law, even holding a meeting between Cruz, Feinstein and 13 other senators in her office Wednesday. “She is continuing to work to find a bipartisan solution that can pass,” Clark said.