Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) speaks on Jan. 22 in Freeport.

Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) speaks on Jan. 22 in Freeport. Credit: Howard Schnapp

A few improvements have been made in conditions for thousands of migrants in detention centers and other facilities along the nation’s southern border, Rep. Kathleen Rice said Friday, but even with fresh emergency funding they remain overcrowded places where people live in cages.

“Their situations are still very dire,” the Garden City Democrat said after visiting the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, and a detention center in Donna, Texas. “There are still a lot of people; the processing is slow.”

Rice said she took the trip to the Rio Grande Valley as chair of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border Security, Facilitation and Operations. A bright spot — at least since her last visit in April — was the medical screenings and conditions she saw at the facility in Donna.

She also said $4.6 billion in funds that Congress appropriated this month for emergency assistance is beginning to make an impact.

“There was an improvement in medical services, but that’s not saying that much because there wasn’t really anything the last time we came here,” Rice said in a telephone interview as she prepared to travel to New York. “There were some improvements, but there’s still overcrowding and that should not be."

She and staffers interviewed some of the migrants, who were primarily from El Salvador and Honduras, and said they appeared to be in decent health "for living in a cage. They're literally in cages and it's difficult to sleep with the lights on 24/7."

Rice was among nearly three dozen members of Congress, both Republican and Democratic senators and representatives, who visited the facilities in Texas on Friday as the nation debates the effectiveness of President Donald Trump’s immigration policies.

Earlier this month, news organizations reported that the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General found unsafe and unsanitary conditions in five Rio Grande Valley facilities. The inspector general urged the agency "to take immediate steps to alleviate dangerous overcrowding and prolonged detention of children and adults in the Rio Grande Valley.”

The inspector general's report sparked a sense of urgency among members of Congress, who passed the emergency spending bill for humanitarian relief.

Rice said some of those funds have arrived.

“It’s starting to flow,” she said. Nongovernmental organizations who are providing care for the migrants, such as the Humanitarian Respite Center run by Catholic Charities, now are being compensated for their services. The funds also are being distributed differently than in previous months, to more quickly reimburse the agencies.

“You have so many NGOs and nonprofits — Catholic Charities and other advocacy groups and communities — who are picking up the slack and they need to be reimbursed," she said. "They are severely depleted because they have been carrying the load by themselves.”

Rice urged other members of Congress to visit the border to better understand the magnitude of the problems.

“I think it’s incumbent upon anyone who calls themselves a congressman or congresswoman, or senator for that matter, to come down to the border to see what’s going on, because you’re taking votes on appropriating money for a crisis that you have to see with your own eyes,” she said. “I take our oversight role very seriously.”

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