U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva canceled a tour Monday of the warehouse at the Nogales Border Patrol Station where more than 1,000 unaccompanied Central American children are being processed after a group of religious and civic leaders were barred from accompanying him.
Speaking to reporters outside the station, Grijalva, a Tucson Democrat who represents Santa Cruz County in Congress, criticized the secrecy that has surrounded the Department of Homeland Security’s use of a warehouse at the Nogales station to process young border-crossers caught in South Texas. The lack of transparency, he said, fuels misinformation.
“The point of this whole thing is transparency, and letting the community know what’s going on so that the religious community can go back to their congregations and tell them what’s going on,” Grijalva said of the tour he had tried to organize for Monday.
The congressman and a staff member came to the station with Presbyterian and Catholic religious leaders, as well as representatives from the Tucson Unified School District, the civic organization Promise Arizona, and a staffer from the office of U.S. Rep. Ron Barber, another Democrat from Tucson. Grijalva said his office had supplied all but one of the group members’ names in advance, and requested an in-depth tour of the sleeping and sanitary facilities at the warehouse, as well as the areas where food is prepared. The group members also promised not to take photographs or to talk to the children.
However, when they arrived at the gate, a “person in charge,” who Grijalva believed to be a Border Patrol agent, said word had come from Washington, D.C. that only members of Congress and designated staff could take the tour.
“I felt that me doing the tour singularly was not the purpose of this visit,” Grijalva said. “The purpose was to give other people a chance to see for themselves and for them to give you their impression of what they saw.”
Grijalva plans to return to Washington on Tuesday, where he will meet with Homeland Security officials and try to reschedule the tour for the group, he said.
Other civic and religious leaders, including Father Sean Carroll of the Nogales-based Kino Border Initiative, have been allowed into the warehouse. “I think the difference this time is we wanted an in-depth tour,” Grijalva said.
Since the start of the month, hundreds of migrant children primarily from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have been brought to Nogales from processing centers in South Texas after facilities there were swamped with undocumented, unaccompanied minors. Grijalva said Monday that the Nogales facility is now 61 children under capacity, which is set at 1,200.
Arizona’s Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake last week sent a letter to U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske, urging him to allow reporters into the facility. “In the face of this humanitarian crisis, barring the news media from gathering information that is certainly in the public’s interest undermines principles fundamental to transparency and democracy,” they wrote.
On Monday, Grijalva also spoke in favor of media access.
“I don’t think that by restricting or limiting the ability of media to see, and the ability of outside organizations, and in this instance, religious organizations, from viewing, seeing and first-hand being able to give you their impressions of what they saw, that it’s hurting the mission,” he said. “On the contrary, I think the more transparency you have, the better the job for these kids.”
Federal authorities have cited privacy issues and the rights of children for the media prohibition.
Donations of clothing, toiletries and toys have been pouring into Nogales from faith-based groups and other members of the public who want to make the minors’ stay at the Border Patrol facility more comfortable. However, in a message posted sometime last week to its website, the Department of Homeland Security said it could not accept donations in support of its response to this “humanitarian challenge along the southwest U.S. border.”
“In response to this humanitarian effort, members of the public have expressed interest in donating to help unaccompanied children that recently have entered the United States from Central America,” the message says. “The federal agencies supporting these facilities are unable to accept donations or volunteers to assist the unaccompanied children program.”
Amybeth Willis, a member of the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson who was one of three women who stood outside the Nogales Border Patrol Station Monday chanting slogans and holding signs reading “End immigration detention for children,” “Asylum of these children, nothing less” and “We demand Border Patrol accountability,” said the lack of transparency doesn’t support the government’s assertions that it has the situation under control.
“They’ve tried to make a point about, ‘We’ve got this taken care of, we have everything we need,’ but if they have everything taken care of, why aren’t they letting more people in to see it?” Willis said.
“If you’re going to claim one thing, let other people testify to that.”
Another protester, Paula McPheeters, noted that CBP recently vowed to be more transparent. “Well, clearly they’re not,” she said.
In another argument for greater transparency, McPheeters recalled that agents from the Nogales Border Patrol Station have shot and killed two juveniles in recent years: 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez and 17-year-old Ramses Barron Torres. Both were shot through the border fence amid alleged rock-throwing incidents.
“This is a notorious Border Patrol Station,” McPheeters said. “I wouldn’t want my children here.”
During a news conference in Washington, D.C. last Thursday, Kerlikowske said Border Patrol agents have been making "absolutely heroic efforts" on behalf of the Central American minors.
“They are doing everything from mixing formula to bringing in their own children's clothing, to taking care of these kids in a multitude of ways,” he said.
The situation is taking a “human toll” on the agents, Kerlikowske said. “But they are absolutely committed to making sure that these children are treated not only in the most respectful and humane way, but frankly, the most loving way.”
Even so, he promised to investigate any allegations of abuse.