Should members of Congress be allowed to drop in unannounced to an immigration detention center? Under current law, they can’t.
Immigration detention centers used to hold undocumented migrants caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border have received widespread attention in the past year, especially after summer 2018’s reports about family separations at the border.
One of the most notorious and controversial immigrant detention centers is in Homestead, Florida. In June, exposés by CBS News and the New York Times reported on the sometimes-horrific conditions children face at the facility.
Under current law, members of Congress who wish to visit an immigration detention center have to give the executive branch at least 48 hours. And even then, sometimes the members are turned down, as in April when Trump blocked three Florida Democratic congresswomen from visiting the Homestead facility.
The administration’s refusal is likely due to inhumane conditions revealed by Congress members, such as when Rep. Alexandrio Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY14) toured an immigration center earlier this summer.
“Just left the 1st CBP [Customs and Border Patrol facility,” Rep. Ocasio-Cortez tweeted.
“Officers were keeping women in cells w/ no water & had told them to drink out of the toilets. This was them on their GOOD behavior in front of members of Congress.”
“After I forced myself into a cell w/ women&began speaking to them, one of them described their treatment at the hands of officers as “psychological warfare” — waking them at odd hours for no reason, calling them whores, etc.,” Ocasio-Cortez continued.
What the bill does
The HOMESTEAD Act, named after the Florida facility, would require Congress members be allowed to visit any immigration detention center — and unannounced if they choose, without requiring 48 hours notice as required under current law.
The bill’s full name is the Help Oversee, Manage and Evaluate Safe Treatment and Ensure Access without Delay Act.
It was introduced in the House on July 22 as bill number H.R. 3868, by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL23).
What supporters say
Supporters argue that the despicable conditions often seen in these facilities can only be exposed and rectified with robust congressional oversight, unsanitized by advance notice requirements.
“This Administration has proven it cannot be trusted to protect vulnerable people who have made a desperate journey to our country to escape violence and oppression,” Rep. Wasserman Schultz said in a press release. “Congress must assert its constitutional authority to provide vigorous oversight of these facilities without giving administration officials days to stage-manage who and what visitors can see.”
“If Congress can show up at these detention centers at any time, the Administration will not be able to hide the horrors some of these children endure,” Rep. Wasserman Schultz continued. “Members of Congress must be able to see what daily life is truly like at these facilities, which can only be achieved through unannounced visits.”
What opponents say
Opponents counter that advance notice of immigration detention center visits, and possible outright denials, are actually for the health of the children within.
“We have had significant interest for facility visits,” but advance notices are put in place “to ensure a facility visit does not interfere with the safety and well-being of our [children],” the Department of Health and Human Services told the Miami Herald after three Florida Democratic congresswomen were denied access.
However, it appears likely that the real reasons may have more to do with avoiding bad publicity, as Republican members such Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) have been allowed to visit. Former Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo was initially refused and then allowed to visit despite being a sometime critic of the Trump Administration.
Odds of passage
The bill has attracted eight House cosponsors, all Democrats. It awaits a possible vote in either the House Homeland Security or House Judiciary Committees.
Passage in the Republican-controlled Senate is unlikely, although there have been other reports of even Republican members of Congress denied entry to immigration detention centers.