Vice President Mike Pence and Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee participate in a roundtable discussion at the Customs and Border Protection station in McAllen, Texas, on Friday. Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post

MCALLEN, Texas — When Vice President Mike Pence visited a migrant detention center here Friday he saw nearly 400 men crammed behind caged fences with not enough room for them all to lie down on the concrete ground. There were no mats or pillows for those who found the space to rest. A stench from body odor hung stale in the air.

When reporters toured the facility before Pence, the men screamed that they’d been held there 40 days, some longer. They said they were hungry and wanted to brush their teeth. It was sweltering hot, but the only water was outside the fences and they needed to ask permission from the border patrol agents to drink.

Pence toured two migrant holding facilities Friday with Republican senators in an effort to defend the administration’s handling of the migrant crisis following reports of inhumane conditions at the facilities.

The first center he visited, while not homey or comfortable, was only two months old, cleaner and allowed Pence to paint a rosier picture of the treatment of migrants held in federal custody. But it was much harder for Pence to deny what he’d seen at the second facility and he instead described the conditions as the result of the migrant border crisis the administration has been warning about for months.

“I was not surprised by what I saw,” Pence said later at a news conference. “I knew we’d see a system that was overwhelmed.”

He added: “This is tough stuff.”

The vice president’s office said it specifically instructed the border patrol agents not to clean up or sanitize the facility beyond what is routine so the American people could see the overcrowding and scarce resources, like lack of beds, and see how serious the crisis is at the border.

Pence said the rough conditions were why the administration recently requested and Congress approved $4.6 billion in aid for the border. He said he would push congressional Democrats to back more funding for beds.

Pence’s visit was the latest move by both political parties to use border trips to highlight their case for who is at fault for the border crisis caused by a surge in Central American migrants and what should be done to remedy it. Republicans have accused Democrats of failing to get on board with legal changes to the asylum system that would make the flow of migrants easier to handle, while Democrats have charged that President Trump’s policies and rhetoric are callous and making a bad situation worse.

The political fight over the border is likely to only intensify as both parties prepare for the 2020 presidential race, during which immigration will be a top issue.

Border officials sought to counter some of the men’s claims at the second facility Pence visited.

Michael Banks, the patrol agent in charge of the McAllen facility, said the men there are allowed to brush their teeth once a day and are given deodorant after showering. But he conceded that many of the men had not showered for 10 or 20 days because the facility previously didn’t have showers.

There were no cots for them to sleep on because there wasn’t room, Banks said. Instead they are each given a Mylar blanket. He said they are also given three hot meals a day, along with juice and crackers.

After he toured the first facility, Pence described a much better situation than the one that has been relayed by Democrats and in news reports. He said President Trump wanted him there with media cameras to see for themselves how people were being treated.

“Every family I spoke to said they were being well cared for, and that’s different than some of the harsh rhetoric we hear from Capitol Hill,” Pence said. “Customs and Border Protection is doing its level best to provide compassionate care in a manner the American people would expect.”

Pence first toured the cavernous facility built in May to handle overcrowding, where 800 people are living. Most were lying on kindergarten-style napping mats on the floor covered with thin, tinfoil blankets. In another room, children, all under 8 years old, were seated in front of a television watching an animated Spanish film.

Pence asked the children if they had food and were being taken care of. They all nodded, and some said “si.” A few children shook their heads no when asked if they had a place to “get cleaned up.”

As Pence toured the facilities, a House committee was having a contentious, partisan debate back in Washington over how migrants have been treated. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., requested to be sworn in when appearing as a witness before the panel to show she was telling the truth when she retold a story about a migrant woman who said she had to drink water from the toilet because her sink broke.

Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, accused her of playing to her millions of Twitter followers.

Some Democrats have described the detention centers as “concentration camps” and say the U.S. government is holding children in “cages.” Several children have died after crossing the border and being taken into federal custody.

Pence said it was heartbreaking to hear from children who had walked two or three months to come to America and cross the border illegally, but he ultimately blamed Congress for failing to pass legislation that would deal with the influx of migrants at the southern border.

Republicans have responded to Democrats’ criticism of the detention facility by saying they are unfairly maligning border agents who are doing their best under difficult circumstances because of the surge of Central American migrants.

Pence sought to deliver that message during his trip here, saying “I couldn’t be more impressed” with the work being done by the Customs and Border Protection agents.

Pence toured the facilities with Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, including Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. Democrats turned down the invitation to go. Also on the trip was acting Homeland Security secretary Kevin McAleenan.

On Friday, Trump said he sent Pence on the trip to counter what he said were “phony” stories about the state of the facilities from Democrats and the news media while defending the agents working the detention centers.

“These people – I tell you what – I’ve been with ICE and I’ve been with Border Patrol a lot,” Trump told reporters before departing on a trip to Wisconsin and Ohio. “They love those people coming across the border. They love them and I’ve seen it. They love them.”

Comments are disabled on some stories about sensitive topics.

filed under: