WASHINGTON – In the sweltering Texas summer heat Vice President Mike Pence and reporters entered the McAllen, Texas, Border Patrol facility and gave Americans a sense of the stench, crowded rooms, and the sounds of shouting men at the center of a political firestorm.
Access is severely limited at these sites, making it difficult to assess the conditions that migrants are experiencing in Border Patrol stations, government-run detention facilities and privately-run shelters.
A Border Patrol facility in Clint, Texas, made headlines only after a group of lawyers who had spent time there went public with their findings. Reports from the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General also shed light on dangerous overcrowding and complaints from inmates at several detention centers holding migrants.
But for the most part, it has been difficult for members of the public, the media, and even Congress to fully assess conditions, making Pence's visit all the more important as it gave reporters — and therefore Americans — a look at what is going on inside these facilities, which are at the heart of today's immigration debate.
Pence toured two facilities on Friday. One, a Border Patrol detention facility for single adults in McAllen and another, an air-conditioned tent complex for families and children in Donna, Texas. Here's what Pence experienced.
'The stench was horrendous'
A reporter who witnessed Pence's tour of the facilities relayed gritty details of life inside the detention centers.
Many of the men inside the McAllen facility had not showered in weeks and the air conditioning did not seem to have much effect holding back the Texas heat.
"The stench was horrendous," said Washington Post reporter Josh Dawsey when he entered the facility.
Almost 400 men were crammed inside fenced-off rooms in a facility with white-brick walls and high ceilings. Some men slept on concrete without pillows or mats. The men did not have cots, reporters were told, because there was not enough room for all to lie down. Instead, they were given thin Mylar blankets, which reporters heard crackling in the room, reflecting the facility's lighting. Another 275 women were housed outside in air-conditioned tents repurposed from the Army.
Inside the McAllen facility, men shouted at reporters that they'd been in the facility for 40 days or longer and that they had not been able to shower, were hungry, and wanted to brush their teeth.
"No shower, no shower," men yelled amid a cacophony of echoing voices, according to a video from NBC. Agents wearing face masks guarded the cages. Pence, wearing a dark blazer and button up shirt, is seen peering out at the group, arms crossed. Next to him are Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Mike Lee, Utah, both silently staring through the chain link fence separating them from the migrants.
Michael Banks, the patrol agent in charge of the McAllen situation, said to reporters at the scene no man had been there longer than 32 days.
New video shows severe overcrowding of men in cages at Texas detainment facility during VP Pence's visit Friday.
A group of men detained behind chain link fencing shouted to news cameras, "No shower, no shower!" https://t.co/iysmT8IUE1 pic.twitter.com/VF8kUAy94K
— NBC News (@NBCNews) July 13, 2019
Vice President Mike Pence taking in the scene at McAllen Border Patrol Station as hundreds of migrant detainees are held behind a chain-linked fence. pic.twitter.com/OHyjAii3g8
— Mariam Khan (@MKhan47) July 13, 2019
Banks disputed some of the migrants' descriptions. According to him, men at the facility were allowed to brush their teeth once a day as the facility had "88,000 toothbrushes." Banks added that some had not showered in 10 or 20 days and that the facility received a trailer shower on Thursday.
Pence's office claimed he was not given a sugar-coated version of the facilities.
“The VP’s office specifically instructed CBP to not clean up or sanitize the facility beyond what is routine so the American people could see how serious the crisis at our border is (overcrowding, lack of resources, beds)."
Pence said at a press conference later Friday, “I knew we’d see a system that was overwhelmed," and added, "this is tough stuff." He also called on Democrats to fund more beds at the facilities.
Wow this White house pool report from McAllen: "400 men were in caged fences with no cots. The stench was horrendous." pic.twitter.com/zLwzCqR9WG
— Jon Passantino (@passantino) July 12, 2019
Earlier in the day, Pence toured another facility, a 40,000 square-foot white vinyl tent in the border town of Donna, Texas, where about 800 migrants were detained. The facility has the capacity to house 1,000 people.
"It was eerily quiet. The main noises were the crackling of the blankets and the occasional laugh or wail of a small child. Snacks were occasionally scattered on the floor," described Dawsey.
The tent was broken into four 8,000-square-foot pods that resemble a high school gymnasium with a linoleum, rock-patterned floor. There also was space for intake processing and restrooms with showers and laundry facilities. Each pod was designed to handle up to 125 beds. Officials said the pods would have plastic dividers about 4 feet high to offer some measure of privacy. No chain-link fencing was to be erected inside the complex, officials said.
The Donna tent was designed so that apprehended immigrants would spend up to 72 hours there in Border Patrol custody. Most were expected to be in and out within 48 hours, officials said.
The scene in McAllen (single adults) stands in stark contrast to what we saw at a processing facility in Donna (families with children) - space for cots, tv with cartoons, supply rooms stocked with snacks pic.twitter.com/DNSSeRJAK7
— Betsy Klein (@betsy_klein) July 13, 2019
But while there, the migrants were to be fed and screened for medical needs, could shower in one of the 36 individual stalls – 18 for men and 18 for women – and have access to chemical toilets that will be serviced at least daily.They also receive a change of laundered clothes and sleep on cushioned cots that measure about 2.5 feet by 6.5 feet.
Reporters were guided through one room in the facility where they saw small children and their parents lying on the floor. Children told Pence they traveled by foot from Central American countries over a two or three month-long journey. Some small children, all under the age of 8, were on a bench in front of a television watching a Spanish cartoon and eating snacks. An agent watched the room from a guard tower-like structure above.
Pence tweeted his own photos showing him with a group of children sitting at a white table with snacks. Behind him and second lady Karen Pence is a young child sitting on a metal bleacher as well as mats covered in Mylar blankets.
Pence, in an interview with CNN, defended border patrol agents while trying to differentiate the two facilities.
— Vice President Mike Pence (@VP) July 13, 2019
"What you saw today was a very clean facility where people were being detained indoors and then you saw a temporary facility that was constructed because this facility is overcrowded," he said. "We can't keep people in a cell beyond what the rules and regulations allow for, but everyone even in that temporary facility gets three meals a day, they're getting healthcare, they're getting hygiene."
In a Tweet late Friday, Pence again said the border crisis is "overwhelming" the immigration system.
"To show this, we also visited an overcrowded facility for adult men, many of whom have been arrested multiple times," he said. "These men were in a temporary holding area because Democrats in Congress have refused to fund additional bed space."
Contributing: Michael Collins
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mike Pence visits border detention facilities. What he saw in Texas