By Christina Morales

The Oregonian

Children playing and single men without enough beds were some of the things U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader said he saw on his trip to the U.S.-Mexico border Friday.

Schrader and 16 other congressmen — a group in what he calls the problem solvers’ group that he started seven years ago — took a bipartisan trip to the southern border at the Rio Grande Valley to find solutions to some of the country’s immigration policies. This was Schrader’s second trip to the southern border. Last year, he visited facilities in McAllen, Texas, after President Donald Trump’s family separation policy was put in place.

Schrader and the other congressmen went to a pre-intake facility that processes children and families, a single-adult processing facility and a children’s educational center. They also went down to the river to see the paths asylum seekers travel.

Last month, Willamette University law professor W. Warren Binford interviewed close to 60 children about the conditions at border patrol facilities in the El Paso sector. She found that some hadn’t taken showers in weeks, and some wore the same clothes as when they had arrived to the U.S. Others had flaky scalps, runny noses and matted hair. There weren’t enough mattresses for the children, and some said they were hungry.

Conditions have improved since Schrader’s trip last year. He said the facilities seemed clean and sanitary, and he saw lots of food and snacks being distributed.

At the facility with children and families, Schrader said, he saw children playing. Some boys had just received clean clothes, underwear and socks. For some of the boys, it was their first time putting on socks, he said.

But the single-adult male processing facility had about 30-40 people in one cell with a single toilet and washstand, he said. People could be there for up to a few days, Schrader said. There weren’t enough mattresses. Some men don’t have room to stretch out and sleep, leaving with some sleeping in a corner or against wall.

“The adult system is terribly broken,” Schrader said. “That’s bad on Congress. We’ve made it so political.”

At a newer facility, Schrader said border patrol agents set up large, facilities made of fabric similar to tents with air conditioning and toiletries while they try to find more adequate facilities from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He said border patrol has become more sophisticated in moving people around and that more showers are being provided at central processing facilities.

He said priorities toward making sure children and families are taken care of has affected adult facilities like these. By law, border patrol agents have to accept everyone that shows up.

As of June 1, a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol official said, the agency had arrested more than 664,000 people. More than 377,000 of those people were in family units.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services can’t take any more people, which is contributing to the backup at border patrol facilities, Schrader said.

A report from the Office of Inspector General from July 2 found that at border patrol facilities visited for the report, single adults had standing room-only conditions for a week. Some single adults hadn’t had a shower despite being held for a month, the same report found.

The children’s educational facility at a Baptist church held 400 boys ages 13-17 and had more than 30 teachers, Schrader said.

“The kids make you feel good, but the situation makes you feel bad,” Schrader said.

At the river, Schrader saw the paths people took from the river to seek asylum. He said border patrol agents have become more in-tune into the cartels and tricks they play, such as using people as shields for cartel operations.

He heard a story from a 30-year veteran border patrol agent about finding a woman who’d left her child behind. He said the agent recalled spending three days trying to locate the child until they found the youngster turned up along with a woman and two other kids.

“These men and women are human too,” Schrader said, of the border patrol agents.

Schrader said he and the other members of Congress will soon meet to put together a package of ideas and civil policy toward immigration.

He said he and the group are interested in making sure there are adequate facilities, getting rid of the backlog of cases, giving people a way to apply for asylum in their countries before coming to the U.S., fixing confusions and leeway in courts when declaring asylum and making sure that food and health resources are available.

He said that under the Flores settlement agreement — a settlement from 1997 that ensures the government meets safety and sanitation standards — people are released in the U.S. in 20 days until they return for a court date.

The Flores settlement agreement would be replaced when government standards are created.

Schrader said the group hasn’t decided whether or not to replace the decision, but he wants to make sure it’s not a catch-and-release program, but rather a tool to get people processed in a timely manner.

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