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Protesters across the country demand an end to migrant centers after congressional visit

(CNN) -- Demonstrators are converging on cities across the United States on Tuesday to demand the closure of detention facilities holding migrant children and families.

Advocacy group MoveOn, which is uniting the protests under the #closethecamps hashtag, is encouraging protesters to gather outside the offices of various US senators and representatives to demand they close the detention facilities, withhold funds for detaining and deporting migrants, and "bear witness and reunite families," a news release says.

Major protests are scheduled for New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington and San Francisco. MoveOn says there are 185 "mobilizations" planned, including in smaller cities such as Kalispell, Montana; Viroqua, Wisconsin; and Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.

The protests come a day after a congressional delegation visited some of the facilities on Monday and reported migrants being held in inhumane conditions, including being forced to drink water from a toilet bowl -- a charge US Border Patrol Chief of Operations Brian Hastings called "completely untrue."

 

Protesters with children dressed in Mylar blankets demonstrate at a 'playdate protest', calling for the closing of detention centers for migrant children, outside U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff's (CA-D) office on July 1, 2019 in Burbank, California. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Democratic members of Congress had expressed outrage over the growing humanitarian crisis on the southern border after touring two Texas border facilities prompted by reports of deteriorating conditions.

They described horrific circumstances at facilities on the same day the investigative news organization ProPublica revealed a closed Facebook group in which current and former Border Patrol agents reportedly share jokes about migrant deaths, derogatory comments about Latina lawmakers and a lewd meme involving at least one of them. The posts have been turned over to the Department of Homeland Security inspector general, said US Border Patrol Chief of Operations Brian Hastings.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was among the Democratic lawmakers who toured a facility here Monday following reports of squalid conditions for detained migrants at the border, overcrowded facilities and thinly stretched resources. She claimed she saw migrants drinking out of toilets, which a Border Patrol official flatly denied, and that she felt unsafe during the visit.

"People (are) drinking out of toilets, officers laughing in front of members Congress," Ocasio-Cortez said in a series of tweets. "I brought it up to their superiors," she said in one tweet. "They said 'officers are under stress & act out sometimes.' No accountability.

"In the last facility, I was not safe from the officers," she told CNN's Natasha Chen on her way into the Clint facility. Ocasio-Cortez grew frustrated during the tours, though it's unclear why she felt unsafe. She screamed at Border Patrol agents for trying to take selfies with her before she toured one facility, according to her spokesman Corbin Trent.

Hastings said there are "ample supplies" and that "a lot of our stations look like Costco."

The lawmakers' visit came on the heels of the passage of a $4.6 billion border funding bill to assist with the crush of migrants arriving at the US-Mexico border, and amid government and media reports detailing worsening conditions at border facilities.

Lawmakers congregated in front of the beige facility Monday afternoon and decried the conditions, as protestors chanted over them. Chairman Joaquin Castro, flanked by his colleagues, said, "The system is still broken." Posters saying #Free the Children and "Humanitarian Aid Is Never a Crime Drop the Charges" floated overhead.

US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) attends a press conference following a tour Border Patrol facilities and migrant detention centers for 15 members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on July 1, 2019 in Clint, Texas. (Photo by Luke MONTAVON / AFP / Getty Images)

"It's not just about money, it's also about the standards of care," Castro told CNN. "We're going to have put a hell of a lot of pressure on the Trump administration, through appropriations, through investigations, to get them to change what they're doing."

Democratic Rep. Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania tweeted "conditions are far worse than we ever could have imagined" and that "this is a human rights crisis."

"(Fifteen) women in their 50s- 60s sleeping in a small concrete cell, no running water. Weeks without showers. All of them separated from their families," Dean wrote on Twitter.

Allegations of poor health and hygiene at multiple US Customs and Border Protection facilities in Texas, including the one in Clint, sparked a national outcry last month earlier this month. A team of lawyers, doctors and advocates described circumstances in which children said they didn't have access to soap and had few opportunities to shower.

Over the weekend, a federal judge ordered CBP to permit health experts into detention facilities holding migrant children to ensure they're "safe and sanitary" and assess the children's medical needs. The order encompasses all facilities in the CBP's El Paso and Rio Grande Valley sectors, which are the subject of a lawsuit.

Flurry of developments Monday

During Monday's tours, a report by the investigative reporting group ProPublica revealed a closed Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents that reportedly features jokes about migrant deaths, derogatory comments about Latina lawmakers and a lewd meme involving at least one of them. CBP officials said they are investigating "disturbing social media activity." CNN has not been able to independently access and review the Facebook group posts in question.

The posts were "hosted on a private Facebook group that may include a number of CBP employees," according to Matthew Klein, assistant commissioner of CBP's Office of Professional Responsibility.

Before the lawmakers' visit to Clint on Monday, protesters and counter-protesters lingered around the entrance, some donning Trump swag -- at times getting into heated exchanges over immigration.

Victoria O'Connell Curran traveled from Alaska on Saturday to visit the facility. She held an orange sign that read "Close the Camps." "For some reason, it really hit," she said, recalling when she visited the Tornillo influx facility in Texas last year.

Over recent months, the Department of Homeland Security has warned of facilities overwhelmed by the sheer volume of migrant arrivals, eventually provoking the request for additional funds that was passed last week.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan reiterated last Friday that he has warned of overcrowding in border facilities for months, but also pushed back strongly on what he termed "unsubstantiated" reports about the Clint facility where he says children are receiving supplies such as blankets and toothbrushes, despite claims to the contrary.

The situation at the border recently took on added urgency when a photo of a father and daughter who drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande into the US went viral. Texas Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar, who was part of Monday's delegation, became emotional on the House floor as she talked about the photo late last week.

"The United States needs to see what's happening. Americans need to see what is happening," Escobar told CNN Monday, referring to the tragic images that have surfaced.

Inside the facility

CNN and other media outlets toured the Clint facility last Wednesday but were barred from taking any pictures or video.

The facility, which is meant to hold 106 people, was holding 117 migrant youths, CBP officials said at the time. The youngest children in the facility were a 1-year-old, who has been traveling with a 17-year-old and a 2-year-old unaccompanied minor.

Most of the children were being kept inside rooms with metal doors, a large glass window and no windows to the outside. Some were sleeping or lying on orange coats and blue mattresses on the floor. Some girls were passing the time braiding one another's hair and a group of boys were playing soccer.

A teen girl was quarantined in a separate cell, where a sign posted outside indicated that she may have the flu. CBP agents said children in the facility have been treated for chicken pox, rabies, lice and scarlet fever.

Reporters were taken to a galley area with pallets of food, including cups of noodles and drinks. They were also shown a storage area with boxes of toothbrushes, toothpaste and clothing. They also spotted a group of five children playing soccer.

The children are allowed to shower every two days in a trailer equipped with shower stalls, CBP agents said.

While CNN was told by a CBP official at the Clint facility the environment was the same on Wednesday as it was last week when legal monitors visited, a CBP source with firsthand knowledge of the facility said, "Typical. The agency prepped for you guys." The source added, "It's a never-ending cat and mouse game."

Government reports detail overwhelmed border facilities

In May, the DHS inspector general found "dangerous overcrowding," and unsanitary conditions at an El Paso, Texas, Border Patrol processing facility following an unannounced inspection, according to a report.

The IG described "standing room only conditions" at the El Paso Del Norte Processing Center, which has a maximum capacity of 125 migrants. On May 7 and 8, logs indicated that there were "approximately 750 and 900 detainees, respectively."

"We also observed detainees standing on toilets in the cells to make room and gain breathing space, thus limiting access to the toilets," the report, which was first obtained by CNN, states.

A cell with a maximum capacity of 12 held 76 detainees, another with a maximum capacity of eight held 41, and another with a maximum capacity of 35 held 155, according to the report.

"(Customs and Border Protection) was struggling to maintain hygienic conditions in the holding cells. With limited access to showers and clean clothing, detainees were wearing soiled clothing for days or weeks," the report states.

In its response to the inspector general, DHS said that it "has implemented a multi-layered approach" that includes the construction of additional structures to house migrants, continued coordination with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and providing staff support.

The agency has constructed a soft-sided structure at El Paso Station that can hold 500 and has been operational since May 2, the response reads. The agency also plans to build additional structures, including an "800 holding capacity modular facility" at El Paso Station by July 31 and a permanent centralized processing center for approximately 1,800 people.

This article includes updated reporting from Monday and Tuesday.

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