Congresswoman seeks open access for lawmakers visiting detention centers

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Photo provided by Custom and Border Protection to reporter on tour of detention facility in McAllen, Texas. Reporters were not allowed to take their own photos. From Wikimedia Commons.

Last month, a group of Democrats running for president made well-publicized visits to the Homestead detention center in South Florida to investigate the conditions where migrant children are being held.

But they weren’t actually allowed inside the facility to investigate first-hand the conditions there.

That’s because, unlike Florida lawmakers who can visit state prisons without giving officials advance notice, members of Congress must give at least 48 hours notice before traveling to an immigration detention center. They are barred from entering if they don’t give advance notice. At the Homestead detention center, officials have asked federal lawmakers to give them two weeks advance notice.

South Florida Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz wants to change the situation. She has filed a bill to make sure  that members of Congress are able to conduct “robust, unfiltered and unfettered” oversight of immigration detention centers, where there have been reports of dangerous overcrowding and unsanitary conditions.

The legislation, called the Help Oversee, Manage and Evaluate Safe Treatment and Ensure Access Without Delay, or HOMESTEAD Act of 2019, would prohibit the Trump administration from preventing members of Congress from entering any migrant detention facility operated by the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Health and Human Services, or contractors working on behalf of those agencies. It would also prohibit the Trump administration from requiring members of Congress to provide advance notice before entering a facility.

“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,” Wasserman Schultz charged in a written statement. “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. 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.”

Wasserman Schultz herself has been twice denied entry to the Homestead facility. Her office says that on two other occasions, she was granted access, but only after officials and the for-profit contractor had “days” of advance notice.

Among the co-sponsors of the bill are some of Wasserman Schultz’s colleagues in the Florida congressional delegation who have also been denied entry to facilities, like  U.S. Reps Debbie Murcasel-Powell, Donna Shalala and Frederica Wilson, and Charlie Crist.

Media reports describe  unsanitary and unsafe facilities run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection which have led to outbreaks of communicable disease and allegations that the agency isn’t giving detainees enough food.

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