Visits to border detention centers widen Congressional divide
Detention facilities that house migrants and asylum seekers along the U.S.-Mexico border are a frequent stop for members of Congress and the Trump administration.
And Democrats and Republicans increasingly return home with anecdotes supporting their often-opposing positions. They may have visited the same facilities but offer different perspectives on what it all means.
Two weeks ago, Vice President Mike Pence returned from a visit to detention centers along the Texas border decrying Democrats’ comments that U.S. Customs and Border facilities resembled concentration camps.
“What we saw was a facility that is providing care that every American would be proud of,” Pence said.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, just returned from a whirlwind tour of Texas border facilities and over the weekend told a different tale. He said the facilities he visited varied, including a new detention center in Donna and the older Ursula Detention Center near McAllen. Some — like the McAllen facility that has been criticized repeatedly — were crowded and left much to be desired. Others, like the family holding center at Donna represented a significant improvement, Casey said.
He conceded what he saw may have been sanitized for a tour featuring a dozen Senate Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and one independent.
But even the better facilities left Casey troubled.
“It just doesn’t correspond with what we think of as America. In all of these places, I felt like I was in a prison,” Casey said.
Pennsylvania’s senior senator said President Trump holds much of the responsibility for the growing problem. He said the president’s emotional rhetoric has created a greater divide between those who must address the issue.
On July 3, Trump took to Twitter to defend what is happening at the border. He said bad immigration laws are to blame, not Border Patrol.
“Many of these illegals aliens are living far better now than where they came from, and in far safer conditions. No matter how good things actually look, even if perfect, the Democrat visitors will act shocked & aghast at how terrible things are. Just Pols. If they really want to fix them, change the Immigration Laws and Loopholes. So easy to do!” Trump tweeted.
…..came from, and in far safer conditions. No matter how good things actually look, even if perfect, the Democrat visitors will act shocked & aghast at how terrible things are. Just Pols. If they really want to fix them, change the Immigration Laws and Loopholes. So easy to do!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 3, 2019
Oversimplifying a complex issue
Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst who studies migration issues with the Migration Policy Institute, an independent nonpartisan think tank, wasn’t surprised two people could look at the same picture and draw different conclusions.
“Both sides have stuck to very consistent stories about southern border,” Pierce said. “It’s become very common (for members of Congress) to go. It provides politicians with anecdotes they’ll mine for years to come.”
She worries that approach oversimplifies a complex problem.
“The reality is it is a very complicated issue. And when you try to synthesize it down for talking points, you can get whatever you want,” Pierce said.
U.S. Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, a freshman Republican from Peters Township, Washington County, visited Texas border facilities in June. He said he came away convinced there is a humanitarian crisis. He said it is perpetuated by human traffickers and drug smugglers abusing a porous border and asylum seekers offering fraudulent claims.
At least one local Congressman had to back away from his post-visit comments.
Republican freshman Congressman John Joyce, whose district stretches from Westmoreland County to Chambersburg, returned home aghast at reports of drug-resistant tuberculosis turning up among migrants along the Arizona border in April.
Public health officials in Arizona later discredited those reports. Joyce, who said such threats bolstered his support for a border wall, simply said he’d been misled.
Seeing what they want
The back and forth between those on opposite sides of the border immigration issue was apparent when Trump sent Pence and a Republican delegation to visit border facilities July 12 as firebrand New York freshman Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez testified before the House Oversight and Reform Committee that she saw inhumane conditions after visiting border facilities.
“To be honest with you, I was not surprised by what we saw,” Pence said while in Texas. “This crisis is real, the time for action is now.”
Pierce said liberals tend to cite the push of poverty and violence in Central America as motivating migrants, while conservatives cite the pull of outdated immigration laws coupled with the draw of jobs in the United States.
Gerald Shuster, a professor of political rhetoric at the University of Pittsburgh, said it is a classic case of politics as usual.
“They see what they want to see to reinforce the thesis that they adopted. Some of it is fact and some of it begins with fact and it is reinforced by some of the info that is fed to them by aides or friends who support that same position,” Shuster said.
Shuster and Pierce said the issue might be better addressed if members relied upon experts who have studied the problem rather than tense debate between those who have briefly visited the border.
Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, [email protected] or via Twitter .