Members of Congress toured two immigrant detention centers in Texas on Monday. Organized by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the visits gave 14 Democratic officials a firsthand look at the conditions in which undocumented people are being imprisoned by the Trump administration. By most of their accounts, things were worse than had been reported. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted that inmates at the El Paso facility were made to drink out of toilets, prevented from showering for 15 days, and subjected to “psychological torture” by guards who woke them at odd hours for no reason and called them derogatory names. Representative Judy Chu tweeted that one woman had epilepsy but was denied medication. Representative Madeleine Dean tweeted that women in their 50s and 60s were being forced to sleep in overcrowded concrete cells without cots.
When Representatives Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib tried to address a crowd gathered outside the Clint facility — which drew national attention recently when it was revealed that children imprisoned there were being denied toothpaste and soap — pro-detention protesters shouted over them, with some yelling at Tlaib, who is Muslim, about how much they loved pork and calling her a foreigner.
It was a damning day generally for immigration officials and their supporters: The visits coincided with ProPublica’s revelation that a 9,500-member Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents contained posts mocking migrant deaths and an illustration of Ocasio-Cortez having oral sex with a detainee. “This isn’t about ‘a few bad eggs,’” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted in response to the story. “This is about a violent culture.”
Amid these accounts, there remains partisan disagreement over whether conditions at such facilities are indeed worthy of rebuke, and members of conservative media staked out their position by focusing on how Ocasio-Cortez behaved during her tour. The Washington Examiner’s Anna Giaritelli tweeted, “SCOOP: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., screamed at federal law enforcement agents ‘in a threatening manner’ during a visit to a U.S. Border Patrol facility in El Paso, Texas, Monday afternoon and refused to tour the facility, according to two people who witnessed it.” (Giaritelli has reported dubious stories in the past based on anonymous and minimally corroborated accounts. In January, she wrote that an unnamed rancher claimed to have found Muslim prayers rugs on her New Mexico property near the Mexican border.)
Giaritelli’s story about Ocasio-Cortez was picked up by the likes of Fox News and the Daily Caller. The New York congresswoman and her colleagues were put on the defensive, releasing statements and social-media posts refuting how her behavior was being characterized. They presented an alternate story: that one of the facility’s guards had tried sneaking a selfie with Ocasio-Cortez, to which she asked if he and his colleagues thought the whole ordeal was “amusing.” She also reportedly finished the tour, though she deviated from some of its planned segments to enter the cells where the imprisoned women were being held. Ocasio-Cortez furthermore dismissed the notion that armed Border Patrol guards felt legitimately threatened by a five-foot-four woman.
The entire news cycle surrounding the congresswoman’s behavior was an example of how debates about political violence get subsumed by debates about civility. It is hard to imagine conditions more worthy of an outburst than those in which the U.S. government has killed seven migrant children and imprisoned thousands more. Yet accounts of Ocasio-Cortez losing her cool — false or devoid of context though they may be — are framed as scandalous and characterized as threats against the law officers who maintain those conditions. It is a familiar standard, echoing the same logic by which many critics oppose nonviolent protests against racist police violence: By objecting to the method of protest — blocking traffic, kneeling during the national anthem — they obscure the fact that it is the protest that actually bothers them.
Ocasio-Cortez is now compelled to defend behavior that, had she even engaged in it, would have been reasonable given the circumstances. Instead, it is being used to illustrate her unreasonability relative to those who incarcerate and functionally torture people for not having immigration papers. Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigrants and asylum seekers continues unabated. House Democrats capitulated to the president’s demands last month and passed a bill securing $4.6 billion in humanitarian funds to allow him to continue keeping migrants locked up. The House was pressured into swiftly passing the bill by Republicans and conservative Democrats, but lacked key caveats sought by progressives, including stricter guidelines about conditions in detention facilities and less funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. The administration’s lack of interest in humane treatment of migrants was well-documented before Ocasio-Cortez and her fellow members of Congress visited. Accounts from a team of lawyers that interviewed children held at the Clint facility last month documented depraved conditions, including upward of 300 children being housed in a facility built to hold just over 100, many unbathed with dried mucus caking their clothes.