Impassioned AOC, fellow Democrats zero in on Trump's practice of separating families at border

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez said a woman told her a guard said to drink from a toilet.

July 12, 2019, 5:40 PM

A House Oversight Committee hearing on Friday on separated migrant children heard emotional accounts from Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Rashida Tlaib about their visits to border detention centers and later erupted into yelling matches, as Democrats went after the former acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Illinois Rep. Chuy Garcia, an Illinois Democrat, directly addressed Thomas Homan, who served as the acting ICE director last year, asking how he could have allowed family separations to take place under his watch.

"Mr. Homan, I’m a father, do you have children?" Garcia asked. "How can you possibly allow this to happen under your watch? Do you not care? Is it because these children don’t look like children that are around you? I don’t get it."

Homan pushed back and defended his integrity, saying he had served his country for 34 years.

"What I’ve been doing in my 34 years serving my nation is to save lives. So, for you to sit there and insult my integrity and my love of my country and for children, that’s why this whole thing needs to be fixed," Homan said.

Earlier at Friday's hearing, Ocasio-Cortez. a New York Democrat, gave defiant, emotional testimony about her time spent at the border, in which she insisted a woman being held at a border facility told her a guard had told the woman to drink from a toilet after the connected sink broke.

“I believed them. I believed these women," Ocasio-Cortez said, despite President Donald Trump telling reporters at the White House at about the same time Friday that she had lied. Ocasio-Cortez asked to be sworn in, which wasn't required, testifying under threat of perjury if she didn't speak the truth.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection official who spoke under the condition of anonymity previously confirmed that the sink attached to the top of the toilet at the Homestead, Florida, facility had been broken, but that large jugs of water were nearby.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, gestures while testifying before the House Oversight Committee hearing on family separation and detention centers, July 12, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Ocasio-Cortez went on to call the crisis at the border "manufactured," saying that "the cruelty is manufactured" and that "there's no need for us to do this."

"There is no need for us to overcrowd and to detain and under resource," she said.

She said that in many she respects she agrees the conditions at the border aren’t the fault of CBP.

“It is a policy of dehumanization implemented by this executive administration laid at the feet of Stephen Miller that creates a tinderbox of violence and dehumanization where hurt people hurt people,” she said, referring to the president's hard-line adviser on immigration policy.

Ocasio-Cortez also got emotional when noting that there were American flags all over the facilities.

“That women were being called these names under an American flag," she said. "We cannot allow for this.”

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, center, alongside Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, left, wipes her eyes after testifying before the House Oversight Committee hearing on family separation and detention centers, July 12, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Tlaib, a Democratic congresswoman from Michigan, who visited the same Homstead border detention facility, broke into tears after saying that the Trump administration is sending a "hate-filled message that those seeking refuge are not welcome in America."

Elora Mukherjee, a Columbia Law School clinical professor, testified about her experience talking to migrants in the Clint, Texas, facility:

“Last month, when I was in Clint, children reported to me that officers had pushed children who needed to use the bathroom and prevented them from using the toilet when they needed to. Three children reported to me that a child had been grabbed by the back of his neck and had been pulled out of his cage. Other children consistently reported that guard yelled at them and that the children were terrified and that they were so terrified of the guards that they couldn’t even bring themselves to ask for more food. Now, that said, I also heard about one guard who was kind with the children and who gave the little ones an extra chocolate pudding when he was able to.”

“In Clint, we talked to a girl who was in a cell with about 20 other girls, 10 to 20 other girls. They were very young and the nurse would bring in two lice combs so that all the girls could share the lice combs – which is exactly the opposite of what you’re supposed to do when you have lice. And sometime later a guard came back to get those two lice combs back. One of the lice combs was missing. In retaliation as punishment for losing a lice comb, every mat and blanket was taken out of that room and the girls had sleep on the cement floor,” she testified.

The impassioned testimony comes as Democrats are sounding the alarm on the Trump administration’s former policy of separating families at the border, citing new documents that show last year, hundreds of children, including toddlers and infants, were kept from their parents for months at a time.

Although the practice of separating children from their parents at the border is no longer in place, Democrats also are calling out the administration’s ongoing policy of separating kids traveling with aunts, uncles and grandparents – a practice that contributed to a backlog of some 2,500 children stuck at Border Patrol stations in recent weeks while the government scrambled to find longer term shelter.

However, Republicans have pushed back -- during his testimony on Friday, Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas called out both parties have having failed on immigration.

“The fact is, both parties have failed. The GOP all too often wants to stand at the Rio Grande with a No Trespassing sign … with a ‘help wanted sign’ in the other. Meanwhile, my Democratic colleagues prefer to stand in front of chain link fences next to an empty parking lot while making up hyperbole for clicks, Twitter followers and cynical politics,” he said.

Responding to Ocasio-Cortez's claims that were posted in a tweet, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Kevin Cuccinelli wrote in his own tweet that: "The border crisis is real and the Trump admin has been saying so for months. Children are being used & exploited as de facto passports to enter our country. Congress could stop this crisis immediately by fixing the loopholes that are perpetuating child trafficking."

In a new report released on Friday by the House Oversight Committee, House Democrats revisit the impact of the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy last year, which resulted in at least 18 infants and toddlers under two years old being separated from their parents and kept apart from 20 days to half of a year.

The report also showed that at least 679 separated children were held in government custody for somewhere between 46 to 75 days. It stated that there were more than 50 children held between 6 months to a year, and 25 children held for more than a year in government custody.

"Today, we examine the Trump administration's inhumane policy of separating children from their parents at the Southern border," said House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., at a hearing aimed at examining the Trump administration's family separation practice. "I use the word inhumane for a reason. Separating children from their mothers and fathers causes damage that may endure for a lifetime," Cummings said.

PHOTO: House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., leads the vote to subpoena presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway for not appearing before the panel on Capitol Hill, June 26, 2019.
House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., leads the vote to subpoena presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway for not appearing before the panel after allegations that she repeatedly violated the Hatch Act on Capitol Hill, June 26, 2019.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Additionally, Democrats and human rights groups say the practice of removing children from their extended relatives, like aunts and uncles, who many traveled to the border with, is just as devastating as separating the children from their parents.

The Trump administration does not classify the practice of separating children from relatives who are not their parents, like an aunt or uncle or grandparent, as a family separation – citing legal requirements put in place to ensure the child’s security.

Ocasio-Cortez addressed this at a subcommittee hearing about the administration’s immigration practices on Wednesday.

She said an “important cultural context” was missing from the conversation about unaccompanied children, adding that in Latino communities “what gets defined as family is different than what usually or what traditionally get defined as family in the United States.”

“When I was a child, my parents would often send me to Puerto Rico during the summers and I would live with my aunts, and my uncles and my cousins. My cousins were raised with me as my siblings, you know, they were – I would call them ‘brother,’ ‘sister’ – my aunts and my uncles were raised as secondary parents,” Ocasio-Cortez recalled.

“This is the cultural context with which children are coming to the border with their loved ones,” she said. “They are being taken, they arrive and then they are being called unaccompanied children, when in fact, they are accompanied.”

She reiterated this point at Friday's hearing, saying, "It is unnecessary to have a policy that calls children unaccompanied when they arrive with older brothers, sisters and grandparents and treat them no different than human traffickers."

Although the Trump administration ceased its practice of separating migrant children from their parents at the border last year, currently if a child comes to the United States with someone other than their biological parent they are classified as unaccompanied.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) questions Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell during a House Financial Services Committee hearing on "Monetary Policy and the State of the Economy" in Washington, D.C. July 10, 2019.
Erin Scott/Reuters

“When encountering minors, there are legal requirements that CBP must follow that are in place to ensure the safety of the child,” CBP said in a statement.

CBP cites immigration law that says a child must travel with a parent or legal guardian. Otherwise, they are separated during immigration proceedings. The adult is taken into custody by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement; the child referred to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Instead, the child is put into the custody of Health and Human Services.

"We have for years monitored and served children who have been separated by these other primary care takers and have seen not just the emotional devastation it causes for them to be separated but how it really hinders our immigration system and processing the cases going forward," said Jennifer Podkul in a phone interview with ABC News. Podkul is the senior director of policy and advocacy at Kids In Need of Defense, or KIND, a group that provides legal counsel to unaccompanied children.

Podkul said that often times the adult traveling with a child is more aware of the reasons why the family might have left their home country in the first place. She also said that adults generally are the ones in possession of the necessary documents for the child's asylum case.

In this July 9, 2019 photo, immigrants line up in the dinning hall at the U.S. government's newest holding center for migrant children in Carrizo Springs, Texas.
Eric Gay/AP

"So, when these separations happen and they ... separate the grandparent and the child and they don't track it, they don't ensure continued communication with these parties, it not only causes incredible emotional trauma for the kids, but also affects the ability to have their case fairly adjudicated," Podkul said.

Ocasio-Cortez’s concern at Wednesday's committee hearing was also echoed by Clara Long – the deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch.

Long noted that US Customs and Border Protection does not keep records of the families that they separate.

“So, when someone is separated from, say their tia whose raised them, maybe for their whole lives, there’s no way for the agency to then trace those relationships and put those families back together,” Long said at Wednesday’s hearing.

This concern is just one of many that has been raised about the immigration process under the Trump administration.

Earlier this month, conditions at certain Border Patrol facilities where children are held were the subject of intense scrutiny, after allegations surfaced claiming children didn’t have adequate access to food and water, among other things.

ABC News' Anne Flaherty contributed to this report

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