Lawmakers take dueling trips to border amid concerns about migrant surge

Biden on decision to not expel unaccompanied ...

Republican Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn and Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro led dueling delegations of lawmakers to the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas on Friday, amid concerns over the surge of unaccompanied minors crossing the border.  

Republican Senator Mike Braun of Indiana, who was on the Republican trip, described witnessing an overwhelmed immigration system, overcrowded facilities and a dead body floating in the Rio Grande. His takeaway from conversations with state troopers and the Border Patrol is that the system is overburdened. The U.S. border had a level of immigration that was working previously, he said. 

"Now the system has just been swamped," Braun told CBS News in a phone interview, adding, "Resources are just being strained."

Senators were instructed not to take pictures of the facilities, but that didn't stop them.

"Of course we weren't supposed to take any pictures, every senator did," he said. 

At the Donna Temporary Processing Facility in Donna, Texas, Braun and the other senators said they witnessed unaccompanied minors and families in spaces that were far more packed than they were supposed to be. 

"They were crowded, as crowded as you can be with space available," Braun said. 

Braun expressed concern for the hygiene of the children, whom U.S. officials are processing extremely quickly as they come in, he said. Braun said Border patrol agents said some children came in with phone numbers of family members already in the U.S. on their foreheads, in addition to their arms. 

Braun didn't go into detail, but described at one point seeing a "dead body floating" in the Rio Grande."

"We saw it," he said. 

Cruz said at a press conference on Wednesday that the purpose of the trip was to "see firsthand the crisis that is unfolding" on the border. Seventeen Republican senators are joining Cruz and Cornyn on a tour of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Donna, Texas. Cruz posted a late-night video to Twitter on Thursday apparently depicting the border, in which he claimed that "human traffickers & cartel members" were "yelling at us across the Rio Grande and preparing to cross."

Meanwhile, Castro led a group of six Democratic House members to a Health and Human Services facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas. In a tweet on Friday morning, Castro said that the purpose of his trip was to ensure that children housed in the facility are "treated humanely."

In a press conference after the visit, Congresswoman Barbara Lee predicted that the House will work to come up with more money for shelters like the one in Carrizo Springs.

"I think what we learned today will really inform funding decisions we make as we move forward to make sure the children's health and safety are a priority," Lee said.

Castro told reporters that "nobody should be kept in those conditions," but laid the blame for the situation at the feet of the previous administration.

"We need to be clear about something: President Biden inherited a situation where the previous administration had sought to dismantle the infrastructure for processing asylum seekers and settling asylum seekers in the United States," he said.

Although border facilities are equipped to care for children while case workers try to unite them with parents or relatives in the U.S., there is not enough space to handle the influx of unaccompanied minors due in part to coronavirus restrictions. Many children are being held for over 72 hours, which is beyond the legal limit.

For the most part, journalists have not been permitted to visit Border Patrol facilities to document the conditions. However, one network camera was allowed inside one of the facilities run by the Department of Health and Human Services and located in Carrizo Springs, where Castro's delegation is visiting.

There were approximately 18,000 unaccompanied migrant children in U.S. federal custody as of Friday morning, according to government figures released this afternoon. Nearly 5,500 were being held in Border Patrol facilities, some of which are overcrowded, and 12,500 were being housed in Health and Human Services shelters and influx sites.

The Biden administration has launched a large-scale effort to open more than 16,000 emergency beds for migrant children.

Republicans have blamed Mr. Biden for the surge, claiming that he is encouraging people to cross the border by rolling back immigration policies instated under Mr. Trump. At his first press conference as president on Thursday, Mr. Biden made it clear he has no regret about ending his predecessor's border policies and dismissed the idea that his rollbacks caused the influx of asylum seekers.

"I make no apologies for ending programs that did not exist before Trump became president that have an incredibly negative impact on the law, international law as well as on human dignity," Mr. Biden said. The president also said that all migrants should be turned back at the border, except for unaccompanied children. 

The two trips to the border followed a meeting of bipartisan group of senators on Wednesday to discuss a possible legislative solution to reform the nation's immigration system. The gathering, organized by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, opened lines of communication between both parties to discuss a legislative path forward, aides told CBS News.

Camilo Montoya-Galvez and Jack Turman contributed to this report.

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