By Mitchell Ferman
McALLEN, Texas (Reuters) – U.S. Democratic lawmakers on Friday called President Donald Trump’s latest anti-immigration initiatives “unacceptable” and warned his administration against misappropriating funding authorized only for humanitarian use.
The criticism came as two congressional delegations toured the U.S.-Mexico border area near McAllen, Texas, as part of efforts to oversee policies banning nearly all asylum-seekers from entry, warehousing detainees in crowded quarters and holding children separately from the adults they traveled with.
“The administration has continued to push anti-immigrant policies that have hurt migrants, endangered asylum-seekers and exacerbated the humanitarian crisis,” U.S. Representative Kathleen Rice, a Democrat leading a bipartisan House delegation, said in a statement. “This is unacceptable.”
While Democrats have denounced Trump for precipitating what they consider a humanitarian crisis, the president’s supporters have applauded him for cracking down on illegal immigration along the 2,000-mile (3,000-km) border.
Immigration, one of Trump’s signature issues in the 2016 presidential campaign, is already shaping up as a central issue in November 2020.
Reporters were not allowed inside as the House group visited the same detention center that Vice President Mike Pence toured last week, experiencing firsthand facilities overcrowded with detainees, many of whom had little access to basic hygiene.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer led 15 Democratic senators on a tour of sites including of a Customs and Border Protection migrant holding facility in nearby Donna, Texas, where two large tents built this spring have been full with more than 1,000 migrants.
Back in Washington, Senate Democrats warned Trump against misusing any of the $4.5 billion in humanitarian aid that congress approved last month, saying in a letter that lawmakers would “scrutinize” how the funds were spent.
The supplemental spending was meant to “alleviate and improve the inhumane conditions faced by children and families seeking refuge at the southern border,” the letter said.
In the past, Democrats have criticized Trump for attempting to use funds set aside for the Department of Defense for border wall construction.
A Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman said on Friday it would expand a program forcing migrants to await their U.S. hearings on the south side of the border. The government will add Brownsville, Texas, as a fifth border city for processing applications of migrants who must wait for a decision in Mexico.
Brownsville is in the Rio Grande sector, where almost 40 percent of all southern border apprehensions since October have been made, Customs and Border Protection data show.
The Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP, is one of the few immigration programs initiated by the Trump administration that courts have allowed to proceed while a lawsuit to stop the program is under consideration. Federal judges have blocked other measures to limit asylum applicants at the U.S.-Mexico border until legal challenges go to trial.
The MPP is unusual in that the U.S. government has secured the cooperation of the Mexican government. Under pressure from Trump, Mexico agreed to take in migrants, mostly from Central America, returned to the south side of the border while they await their U.S. court hearings.
The program began in January in San Diego, and has been expanded to Calexico, California, and to El Paso, Laredo and now Brownsville in Texas.
U.S. officials plan to build a tent court with around two dozen areas where immigration judges will appear over a video monitor, according to Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz.
In Brownsville, U.S. officials told Mayor Trey Mendez they plan to open a tent facility with more than 60 virtual immigration courtrooms in coming weeks.
“Despite the strain that it puts on our law enforcement and fiscal resources, Brownsville will continue to act with the utmost human compassion toward the migrants, regardless of the protocol,” Mendez said.
(Reporting by Mitchell Ferman in McAllen Texas; Mica Rosenberg and Daniel Trotta in New York; and Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Editing by Frank McGurty and Sonya Hepinstall)