DHS chief denied mistreatment of migrants while his own agency found otherwise

PHOTO: Department of Homeland Security (DHS) acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan speaks during a news conference in Washington, June 28, 2019.PlayCarolyn Kaster/AP
WATCH Conditions at migrant detention centers ignite concerns over abuse

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan stood before news cameras and reporters last Friday and unequivocally denounced allegations of mistreatment and neglect of children at a U.S. Border Patrol facility as "unsubstantiated."

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He also praised Border Patrol officers.

"The real story I would submit to you on the border crisis and our response is about our Border Patrol agents who have chosen a career about protecting others," he said.

But McAleenan's remarks are now under scrutiny following two separate bombshell reports -- one by his own agency detailing massive overcrowding and unsanitary conditions at several border facilities, and another report by the investigative news outlet ProPublica exposing the existence of a secret Facebook account in which current and former Border Patrol agents joked about migrants dying.

McAleenan has called for an investigation into the Facebook account. On allegations of mistreatment at border facilities, his office has responded by stating what has been known for months.

"The current migration flow and the resulting humanitarian crisis are rapidly overwhelming the ability of the Federal Government to respond," states a July 1 letter included in the watchdog report by the Inspector General's office at the Department of Homeland Security.

But while Democrats have mostly reserved their wrath for outspoken immigration hardliners in the administration and spared McAleenan -- a career law enforcement official and holdover from the Obama administration -- lawmakers now want McAleenan to testify next week.

"DHS Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan said conditions at the border were ‘unsubstantiated,'" tweeted Sen. Bob Menendez on Wednesday.

"Well, I hope @DHSMcAleenan reads this. Are the reports substantial enough for you, yet?" he wrote, adding a link to the government report detailing poor conditions at facilities.

DHS and McAleenan's office did not respond to several questions about whether he stands by his remarks Friday.

McAleenan, a former head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection before being tapped to lead DHS after Kirstjen Nielsen's ouster, had been sounding the alarm for months on what he says is a breaking point at border facilities. As he noted last Friday, McAleenan had warned Congress repeatedly that the Border Patrol agents didn't have the resources to do their jobs as record-numbers of asylum seekers, including families, crossed the border.

DHS also has pressed for Health and Human Services to open for children's shelters so they could be transferred quicker out of Border Patrol stations, which are cold concrete holding cells not built for long-term stays.

That's why it was particularly noteworthy that McAleenan would flatly deny a June report by The Associated Press that conditions at border facilities had deteriorated. At one border facility in Clint, Texas, independent inspectors alleged that older children took care of younger children and there was no soap or water to wash their hands after using the bathroom.

The AP report that some 250 infants, children and teens were locked up for weeks without adequate food, water and sanitation triggered a public outcry and eventually prompted dozens of Democratic lawmakers, including several presidential contenders, to tour the facility. The government also opened the doors to media tours, although the population of the facility at the time of the tours had decreased substantially as officials expedited transfers to longer term shelters run by the Health and Human Services.

PHOTO: Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, center, announced that the Trump administration will temporarily reassign several hundred border inspectors during a news conference at the border in El Paso, Texas, March 27, 2019. Cedar Attanasio/AP, FILE
Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, center, announced that the Trump administration will temporarily reassign several hundred border inspectors during a news conference at the border in El Paso, Texas, March 27, 2019.

Last Friday, McAleenan said the tours proved that the border facility was "clean and well managed."

"But frankly much of the coverage is simply too late and is missing the story," he told reporters.

McAleenan added that his agency had applied "unprecedented resources and effort to care" for the migrants, including $500 million this year to address the influx of border crossings, including "increasing access to medical professionals in our stations tenfold."

It's not clear when McAleenan would have been made aware of the IG findings, which included such details as people so desperate to escape overcrowded cells that they stuffed blankets down the toilet to prompt maintenance to clear the cell. In one photo, a man in a packed cell presses a cardboard sign against the window with the word "help." The report also quotes facility manager calling the place a "ticking time bomb" because conditions for the detainees were so difficult.

DHS headquarters is typically given advance notice of IG reports, and his office's response is signed July 1 – just three days after his news conference.

The IG report does not specifically address the facility in Clint identified in the AP report, but describes similar conditions at stations in the Rio Grande Valley, including young children held in cramped cells for weeks, sleeping on the floor and without access to showers.

The acting secretary was notified on Monday of ProPublica's report detailing a secret Facebook account involving Border Patrol agents, according to DHS. ProPublica said it provided the names of agents to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol in advance of its publication.

It wasn't until two days after the report was published that McAleenan weighed in publicly, calling the Facebook posts "disturbing & inexcusable" and "completely unacceptable." The acting secretary said he had called for an immediate investigation.

"Any employee found to have compromised the public's trust in our law enforcement mission will be held accountable," McAleenan tweeted. "They do not represent the men and women of the Border Patrol or @DHSgov."

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump claimed conditions are "far better" and "far safer" than the places migrants have fled from and said that if migrants are unhappy with living conditions "just tell them not to come."

A human rights group this week warned that migrants in Mexico are facing massive shortages of shelter, food and water, and are exposed to serious crimes -- including kidnapping, sexual assault and violence.

The president also came to the defense of border patrol agents and said they're doing a "great job."