MCALLEN, Tex. — When Vice President 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 appeared to scrunch his nose when entering the facility, stayed for a moment and left. A few minutes earlier, from a bird’s eye room called “The Bubble,” he’d seen 382 men packed into cells, peering against the windows to get a view of him. Some appeared shirtless.
The vice president 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 — in Donna, Tex. — 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. He used the facility to decry Democrats for comparing such areas to “concentration camps.”
At the second facility in McAllen, he instead described the conditions as the result of the migrant border crisis the administration has been warning about for months but demurred twice when asked if he was okay with the facility’s conditions.
“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.
“That’s the overcrowding President Trump has been talking about. That’s the overwhelming of the system that some in Congress have said was a manufactured crisis,” Pence said during a news conference after visiting the second facility. “But now I think the American people can see this crisis is real.”
Pence’s comments were at odds with recent statements from Republicans, as well as Trump, who have accused Democrats who have visited similar facilities of exaggerating the poor conditions. Trump earlier Friday called recent media reports and comments from Democrats about poor conditions “phony.”
And earlier this month, the president downplayed concerns about how migrants are being treated at the facilities.
“Many of these illegals aliens are living far better now than where they came from, and in far safer conditions,” Trump wrote in a July 3 tweet.
Pence said the rough conditions are why the administration recently requested and Congress approved $4.6 billion in aid for the border, and he accused Democrats of not supporting more funding for additional beds at facilities for migrants.
He also defended the job being done by the employees at the detention centers.
“I was deeply moved to see the care that our Customs and Border Protection personnel are providing,” Pence said. “Coming here, to this station, where single adults are held, I’ve equally been inspired by the efforts of Customs and Protection doing a tough job in a difficult environment.”
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 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, in 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 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 “sí.” 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-Tex.) 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.
Itkowitz reported from Washington.