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Ocasio-Cortez condemns "manufactured" cruelty by White House immigration policies

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gave passionate testimony about her visit to a border facility, telling a House panel Friday morning that "the cruelty (at the border) is manufactured" by hard line immigration policies ordered by the president. 

The House Oversight and Reform Committee held a hearing on the treatment of migrants at the southern border, amid multiple reports of poor conditions in detention centers. Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, in his opening statement, said family separations were "more harmful, traumatic and chaotic than previously known." In noting the reports of squalid conditions for detained migrant children, he urged committee members to ask themselves, "Would you allow this for your own child?"

Members of Congress testify passionately about conditions at the border

After Ocasio-Cortez, the sixth witness to speak, was challenged by Republicans on the panel, she requested to be sworn in to show that everything she was saying was true under penalty of perjury.

Ocasio-Cortez called the crisis at the border "manufactured, and she said, "It is unnecessary to separate children from their families."

"The cruelty is manufactured. This is a manufactured crisis because there is no need for us to do this," she continued. She submitted the names of 17 women whom she visited at the border into the record, saying that she believed their stories that they had been forced to drink from toilets.

"When these women tell me that they were put into a cell and that their sink was not working, and we tested the sink ourselves, and the sink was not working. And they were told to drink out of a toilet bowl. I believe them. I believe these women," she said.

"We are not getting the accounts of migrants, of their treatment, of what they're experiencing," Ocasio-Cortez continued. Her voice breaking, Ocasio-Cortez said that the worst part of her visit was that "there were American flags hanging all over these facilities."

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 12: U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) speaks during a House Oversight and Reform Committee holds a hearing on "The Trump Administration's Child Separation Policy: Substantiated Allegations of Mistreatment." July 12, 2019 in Washington, DC.  / Getty Images

The committee heard first from a panel including Democratic congresswomen who recently visited the border facility in Clint, Texas: Reps. Veronica Escobar, Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib. Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley and Tlaib, along with Rep. Ilhan Omar, are a group of progressive members of the House -- with an extensive social media following -- known colloquially as "the Squad."

Four Republican members of the committee with districts near the border also testified in the hearing. The Republicans and Democrats likely spoke past each other, condemning members of the opposite party for their response to the crisis.

Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs chided his Democratic colleagues for blaming border patrol officials for the poor conditions at detention facilities.

"We do not get anywhere by blaming the people who are doing their best to help these people," Biggs said.

GOP Rep. Debbie Lesko of Arizona also took a shot at the Democrats on the panel, saying, "I'm from a border state, I'm not from a state thousands of miles away." Pressley represents Massachusetts, Tlaib represents Michigan, and Ocasio-Cortez represents New York. Lesko also contradicted Ocasio-Cortez, who said that she saw migrants drinking from toilets when she visited a border facility.

"This whole issue of drinking out of the toilet is wrong. No one is being asked to drink out of the toilet," Lesko said. GOP Rep. Chip Roy of Texas also defended border patrol agents, saying that they were overwhelmed by the number of migrants in need of humanitarian assistance and by criticism from members of Congress.

"They are exhausted of all the rhetoric that is coming down from the media and this Congress," Roy said.

Escobar, who represents a district on the border covering El Paso, Texas, argued that the city of El Paso has responded to migrants crossing the border more "strategically, thoughtfully and compassionately than the federal government has."

Tlaib was on the verge of tears during her testimony, her voice breaking as she showed the picture a young migrant boy had drawn for her, depicting children in cages. She openly cried as she spoke about a pregnant woman whom she met at a detention center. Tlaib also claimed that a border patrol agent at the center told her, "I wasn't trained for this, I am not a social worker, I am not a medical worker...I want to be at the border."

"The dehumanization is not only with these families but with these agents that we've told to do this to these families," Tlaib said about agents.

In her opening statement, Pressley urged compassion, saying that women held in detention facilities were not "voiceless...but they are cruelly and criminally unheard."

Ocasio-Cortez suggested terminating the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in an interview with The New Yorker earlier this week, citing her recent visit to a border detention facility in El Paso, Texas as grounds for disbanding the agency. She described the conditions in the facility as "horrible" and said she witnessed "some of the most inhumane behavior."

"It's not even was the physical manifestation of Trump's rhetoric and calling migrants animals because that's how these women were being treated, their hair was falling out, they had sores in their mouths due to the lack of nutrition," she said.

The agency was created in 2002 to address terrorism in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001.

Officials testify about the situation at the border

The committee then heard from a panel including the acting inspector general of DHS, Jennifer Costello, and the assistant inspector general for evaluations and inspections of the Department of Health and Human Services, Ann Maxwell. Former Acting ICE Director Thomas Homan was also on the panel.

Elora Mukherjee, a professor at Columbia Law School, also gave impassioned testimony about the conditions at the Clint, Texas, detention facility for children, which she had recently visited. Mukherjee described children who were not provided with soap or toothpaste, and who were stinking due to their inability to bathe.

"Children were hungry. Children were traumatized," she said. She teared up as she described a six-year-old boy who had been separated from his brother who had been traumatized by the experience.

"Here was a child, the same age as my son, stuck in a hellhole," Mukherjee said. "I was, and I remain shaken to my core by what I witnessed at Clint."

In her opening statement, Costello said that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) requires "immediate assistance" to address the "acute and worsening crisis" of overcrowding in CBP facilities. She also said that there was concern in the office of the inspector general (OIG) that DHS had not done enough to ameliorate the overcrowding and address the deteriorating conditions.

"We remained concern that it is not taking sufficient steps to address the overcrowding," Costello said.

In a recent report, the DHS OIG found squalid conditions in several detention centers for migrant families and children in Texas, including "serious" overcrowding, minors going without hot meals for days and detainees begging not to be returned to their cells.

Along with mass overcrowding in detention cells for children, adults and families, the agency said it found that detainees had been held in CBP custody for a "prolonged" periods of time. In all of the inspected facilities, more than 2,500 unaccompanied children had been held for more than three days, a violation of the Flores court settlement that governs the care of minors in U.S. custody. About 50 children under the age of 7 had been in custody for over two weeks, the report said. 

The panel comes as a Republican Senate delegation led by Sen. Lindsey Graham travels to McAllen, Texas, to assess the situation at the border.

"Word is out on the street in Central America that if you make it to the United States, try to get caught, don't evade capture, claim asylum - your chances of being deported are very, very low. I'm trying to do something about that," Graham said on Thursday.

Vice President Mike Pence is also visiting a border detention facility Friday -- he intends to show that reports of chaos and turmoil at the detention facilities are inaccurate, and migrants are receiving good care. 

On Sunday, mass raids on undocumented immigrants by ICE expected to begin. According to the New York Times, ICE is reportedly targeting about 2,000 migrants who are here illegally and were ordered deported. The agency has said that while its focus is on arresting people with criminal histories, any immigrant found in violation of U.S. laws would be subject to arrest.

Emily Tillett and Camilo Montoya-Galvez contributed to this report

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