A top immigration official appointed by President Donald Trump last month downplayed reports of inhumane conditions at migrant detention centers and blamed Congress for overcrowding in the facilities.
Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office, was grilled Sunday by ABC News’ Jonathan Karl about media reports that undocumented immigrants are being detained in cages without beds and access to showers.
“I know the system’s overwhelmed. How can this happen in the United States of America?” Karl asked, citing a Washington Post report that described sweltering heat and limited water access at one facility in McAllen, Texas.
“Well, because Congress has let it happen. It’s that simple,” Cuccinelli responded, adding that lawmakers had failed to allocate the necessary resources.
Karl continued to press Cuccinelli: “I understand that there was a request from the administration back in February for 52,000 more beds. But how can you allow this to happen? If you don’t have the resources, you can’t detain these people, can you?”
“Sure you can,” Cuccinelli responded.
“Isn’t that a basic human rights violation?” Karl pushed back, prompting laughter from his guest.
“No. I mean, they’re being fed,” Cuccinelli said.
The last four months have seen a much higher number of undocumented immigrants apprehended by U.S. officials at the border compared with the same period of time in recent years. Over 104,000 migrants were detained in June ― nearly 2.5 times higher than the number detained in June 2018.
Immigrant rights advocates argue that the undocumented immigrants should be released until their asylum hearings, given the abhorrent conditions and lack of resources at some of the detention centers.
But Cuccinelli squarely rejected that idea on Sunday.
“Many of them never show up,” he told Karl. In fact, asylum-seekers showed up to their court dates 89 percent of the time in the fiscal year ending in September 2017, according to data from the Department of Justice.
“Look, they can also go home, which is our preference,” Cuccinelli added, pushing another myth that detained migrants are free to leave at any time. Though some migrants can leave through a process called “voluntary departure” by obtaining a judge’s permission to pay for their own flight out of the U.S. instead of being deported, financial and legal barriers often prevent them from doing so.
Senior White House aide Kellyanne Conway also shrugged off the crammed, unhygienic conditions at detention centers Sunday during an appearance on “Fox News Sunday.”
“I witnessed no overcrowding,” Conway said of her recent visit to a migrant detention center in Donna, Texas. “I saw lots of supplies. I saw diapers. I saw food. I saw endless supplies of water.”
Moderator Chris Wallace pressed Conway to discuss the McAllen facility and a recent report from the Department of Homeland Security inspector general that urged officials to address the “dangerous overcrowding and prolonged detention of children and adults” in some detention centers.
“I understand that President Trump is trying to stop the flood of people across the border ... which contributes to the overcrowding, but how does it help for the president to minimize the situation ... when you can look at the conditions there? It’s a disaster,” Wallace said to Conway of the McAllen facility.
“That facility was meant to be ― this is what I was briefed on ― that facility was meant to be a 72-hour holding facility,” Conway said. “It’s not equipped to keep single males who have broken the law by coming here, were apprehended. If you just want to let them go, then say that we just are open borders.”