What I Witnessed On My Visit to the Border

On Monday of this week, I was in McAllen, a beautiful community comprised of some incredibly courageous, strong, kind hearted people in the Rio Grande Valley, connected by the Rio Grande River to Reynosa, Mexico, forming one of these extraordinary binational communities that distinguish our connection with Mexico and the rest of the world.

I was able to visit the Border Patrol station, which is the busiest Border Patrol station in the country. I happened to be there during the busiest shift during that day in that busy station, and I was able to spend some time with the women and men of the Border Patrol, who have one of the toughest jobs that I can imagine: keeping our country safe, protecting our communities and the families within our communities, and meeting those who are at their most desperate, most vulnerable moment in their lives, people who have fled terror and violence, death and deprivation in their countries to come to ours, to seek asylum, to seek safety, to seek refuge.

In that Border Patrol station I had the ability to meet a family, a young mother and her young child, who had fled Honduras and had traveled more than 2,000 miles to come to this country. And because they presented themselves to Border Patrol agents, didn’t try to flee from them, went to those Border Patrol agents seeking asylum in between the ports of entry and didn’t do it at the international bridge, didn’t do it at the port of entry, that young mother and her child were arrested. They were being held in that cell comprised of cinder blocks, sitting on a hard concrete bench with a number of other mothers and young children, had just been arrested within the last 24 hours and were about to go to the Border Patrol Processing Center.

Through tears, that young mother was able to tell me about her journey. When I asked her why she didn’t choose to cross at the port of entry, where she could have lawfully petitioned for asylum, she said: ‘‘I was scared.’’ She didn’t know where to cross. And, frankly, those crossing areas in Reynosa on the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border are controlled by the cartels. The cartels determined where she and her 7-year-old daughter were going to cross.

Not lost on me was the fact that her daughter was gripping her mother’s hand for dear life, as I imagine she had been for the last 3 weeks when they made that 2,000-mile journey, where, if they were lucky, they made it atop, not inside of, a train, known as La Bestia, or the Beast, and where they were fortunate enough to survive that journey and come to our front door of the United States at the Texas-Mexico border, and where she was arrested and, unbeknownst to her and to that little girl who was clutching her hand, they would, within hours, be separated and might not know when they would be joined again, if ever. The women and men who travel with those young children in between our ports of entry are arrested, detained, imprisoned, jailed in those Border Patrol stations, where they then go to the next place that I went to in McAllen, which was the Border Patrol processing center.

This was a gigantic warehouse, where I saw the children who had just been separated from their moms and dads behind cyclone fencing, sleeping on polished concrete floors with a mattress 5 or 6 inches thick directly on the ground, Mylar blankets keeping them warm, again, with Border Patrol agents who were as humane and professional as possible, given the circumstances and the conditions. Men separated in other holding pods, women behind cyclone fences in other holding pods. There was another cyclone-fenced area open for public view where you went to the bathroom and where we had to be able to see your head or your feet.

After that, I went to the international bridge at Reynosa and, on the Mexican side, was able to talk to three different people who were seeking asylum. Two of them had made the trip from Guatemala. When they got to Reynosa, they were kidnapped by cartels, held for 12 days without clothes, without access to the outside world, with the exception of being able to make calls to family members who could cough up the $7,500 that would purchase their freedom, allow them to leave captivity and make their way to the international bridge, literally 10 feet away from the international line and the United States of America, where, if they could step foot on our soil, they would be able to lawfully petition for asylum.

Speaking with those who are camped out as they seek asylum atop the international bridge, a mere 10 feet away from the United States of America.

But standing there were four officers of Customs and Border Protection who would not let them pass, who told them we do not have capacity within our country and, therefore, they could not lawfully petition for asylum, therefore, perversely providing the incentive for them to try to cross in between the ports of entry illegally, where they will be arrested, criminally prosecuted, and sent back to countries from which they are fleeing certain death.

After that, I went to a detention center run by a private prison corporation, where I met a man who had left his home country with his 12-year-old daughter, whom he has not seen for the last 5 days. And in between 4-inch thick Plexiglass, behind which I could barely hear what he was saying, he told me about the horrific journey that he had endured. He took off his shirt and showed me the bullet wounds that he had suffered that had caused him to make the desperate decision to leave his family, his home country, his language, whatever he knew in life, and take that 12-year-old girl and try to bring her to safety. Again, just as with that mother, he was arrested. He now was in criminal proceedings.

He would then be moved to Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Enforcement Removal Operations, ERO facility, where he would be sent back to his country of origin; and he had no clue where that 12-year-old girl that he had risked everything for was at that moment.

Who are we to be doing this right now?

I know that every single one of us, to a person, if we were standing here in this Chamber in 1939 when this country was sending back the St. Louis, which had set sail on May 13, 1939, from Hamburg, Germany, with more than 900 German Jewish refugees, including children, that all of us, to a person, would like to say, if I were here, I would have made the case to accept the St. Louis and those 900 passengers and make sure that they could find refuge and asylum in this country. Instead, this country chose not to, and we sent that ship back to Europe, where more than 250 of those 900 passengers would be slaughtered in the Holocaust.

This is our opportunity to do the right thing.

We will be judged by our conscience, by our children, and by history. This is our moment of truth. So I call upon ourselves, our country, to do the right thing at the moment that we still have the chance to do the right thing. This coming week, legislation will be introduced to end the practice of family separation. As an original cosponsor of this bill, I am calling on my colleagues to join the decision, the debate, and to pass this overwhelmingly so that we can send it to the Senate and, ultimately, to the President’s desk for his signature and do the right thing while we still have the chance to do that.