Outraged by images of migrant families sleeping on concrete floors and testimony of children detained by U.S. officials, about 50 people gathered Tuesday afternoon in front of Democratic U.S. Rep. Greg Stanton’s office in Phoenix to demand he take a bolder stance on border and immigration issues.
The group gathered as part of the #CloseTheCamps campaign, a national day organized by advocacy groups MoveOn, United We Dream, Families Belong Together, and American Friends Service Committee. The campaign describes as “concentration camps” the border detention facilities meant for short-term stay where migrant adults, teens and children are held for processing for days and sometimes weeks. Government inspectors have found the busiest of those facilities to be “dangerously overcrowded.”
“They are not seen as human,” Dionne Mills, a Gilbert resident, said of the thousands of migrants arriving at the southern border during the event outside Stanton’s office. “This is child abuse to a level I can’t even understand.”
Other similar events were held at the Arizona offices of Reps. Debbie Lesko and David Schweikert, who are both Republicans.
Mills said it’s important for all of Arizona’s congressional delegation to hear from residents.
“We’re not all complacent here in Arizona,” she said. “The representatives are complacent when they allow dehumanizing speech to happen. They are perpetrators of injustices… They all should’ve stood up a long time ago”
Stanton wasn’t at the office when the #CloseTheCamps event was held. He spoke with Arizona Mirror by phone after the protest.
“I think that it is a very complicated dilemma, there’s no easy answers,” he said of the demands to close border detention facilities. Stanton added he wants to make sure those seeking asylum are treated with dignity and respect.
But he, along with two other Arizona Democrats (Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick and Tom O’Halleran) and two Republicans in the House (Lesko and Schweikert) recently supported an emergency funding bill that will likely expand detention facilities for migrant fathers, mothers and children and youth who traveled to the U.S. unaccompanied.
The $4.6 billion measure gives the largest pools of federal funds to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — which holds custody of migrant children and teens who arrived in the country unaccompanied in state-licensed shelters — and to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency that first detains migrants who arrive at port of entries and cross the border.
About half of the $2.8 billion set aside for HHS is assigned to expand its bed capacity at existing network of more than 120 facilities and open new ones.
The Associated Press reported Wednesday that HHS is looking to open a 500-bed permanent detention facility for migrant children and teens in Phoenix, along with four other cities.
Of the $1 billion assigned to CBP, about $708 million is meant for establishing and operating migrant care and processing facilities. An additional $85 million are available through 2023 for CBP to procure, construct and improve migrant processing facilities.
Last week, CBP opened a temporary tent facility in Yuma for migrant families and children. The site has capacity for 500 people.
Stanton said the backed the emergency funding bill because he saw it as the only one on the table, since the Republican-controlled Senate rejected a House version drafted by Democrats.
“The situation is very complicated,” he said. “I felt my vote was the quickest way to get the humanitarian aid to people that need it.”
When asked which federal agencies that the bill funds Stanton considers to be providing humanitarian aid, he said those “providing for the needs of asylum-seekers entering the country.”
“The services that are being provided are not at the level where they should be, and the agencies that provide those services said they needed more support from Congress,” Stanton said.
Those requests for more funding were made by the Trump administration in May.
At the event outside Stanton’s office, Janine Gelsinger, the executive director of the Unitarian Universalist Justice Arizona Network, said those funds don’t represent a solution to a humanitarian crisis.
“It’s not enough to give more money so they can afford soap and toothpaste. We want complete liberation,” Gelsinger said.
Myron Scott added at the gathering that the bill Stanton supported has no accountability to how the money will be spent.
“It is not humanitarian in any meaningful sense,” Scott later told the Mirror. “Congress should be directly funding and assisting NGOs and state and local governments to help them better deal with refugees’ need. The federal government under this Administration simply cannot be trusted to care for children or others.”
Stanton, who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, said he will follow-up to ensure there is “appropriate oversight over the Border Patrol” over how its spending the emergency funds.
Stanton was part of a delegation of House Democrats who traveled to Border Patrol facilities and an HHS shelter for migrant youth in the El Paso region on Monday.
“The conditions were prison-like,” he said of the CBP facilities. Stanton said it was frustrating that border officials didn’t allow the Congressional delegation to bring in their phones to document the visit. The also were barred from speaking to the migrants detained there.
“As members of Congress, we have an absolute obligation to do oversight, and having the ability to directly see and talk to people is part of our responsibility,” he said.
Stanton added that he wants the House Judiciary Committee schedule a hearing in El Paso to follow-up on the spending of the emergency funds.
Meanwhile, one Phoenix group, the Uncage and Reunite Families Coalition, has requested since April that the House Judiciary Committee to hold field hearings in Phoenix, Tucson and Yuma on the treatment of migrant families, many who are seeking asylum, arriving in Arizona.