The government’s top border official emphatically refuted the claim that women were told to drink water out of toilets during the summer migrant surge, telling reporters on Tuesday that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s misleading assertion was the result of “broken Spanish.”
“It’s absolutely false. It didn’t happen,” said Mark Morgan, acting commissioner at Customs and Border Protection. “There was broken Spanish being spoken.”
The claim by Ms. Ocasio-Cortez was one of the more explosive of the summer immigration debate. She made it after she and other members of Congress visited some of the border facilities built to hold about 4,000 people at any given time, but which held nearly 20,000 people at their peak in early June.
The New York Democrat said detainees insisted they were ordered by agents to drink from toilets. Other lawmakers on the visit backed her claim. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez called directives to drink from toilets “psychological warfare” against migrants.
Mr. Morgan, though, said the lawmakers misunderstood the migrant women in the conversation. They were pointing not at the toilet specifically, but at an integrated toilet and drinking fountain system, where both facilities are combined into one unit — though the water is not shared.
“So when they were asked where do you get your water, they pointed over to where the combined toilet-water fountain was. They’re integrated in one modular unit, but completely separate,” Mr. Morgan said. “Hence the narrative got out there we were forcing them to drink from toilets. Absolutely 100% false.”
He said he’s confident he has the right version of events because there were Border Patrol agents nearby and they saw the exchanges between the members of Congress and the migrants and overheard the conversations.
CBP at the time released photos showing the integrated water fountain-toilet unit, but the members of Congress insisted the water fountains weren’t working, so they believed the toilet water explanation was correct.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez on Tuesday told The Washington Times that CBP “lost” the camera footage that could have proved whose version of events is right. But she insisted her conclusions were not a lost-in-translation moment.
“I spoke to those women in their native tongue. I spoke to them in Spanish. And I went over to that sink myself, turned it on, and for the 10 millionth time that I’ve shared this with CBP and Republican members, the sink in their restroom was broken,” she said.
“She pointed to the bowl and she told me in Spanish and I confirmed with her — the bowl,” the congresswoman added. “And so while they want to create all this confusion around those facilities, they were having women drink out of toilets and it’s utterly disgusting.”
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said her staff is pondering a visit this weekend to northern Mexico, where migrants are being pushed back across the border to wait for their immigration court dates in the U.S.
That policy, officially known as the Migrant Protection Protocol but more often called “Remain in Mexico,” was the key element in stemming last year’s border surge, because it denied tens of thousands of illegal immigrants the chance at a foothold in the U.S. while awaiting their cases.
Immigrant-rights activists say the policy leaves some valid asylum-seekers facing life-threatening circumstances, and the House Judiciary Committee announced Tuesday it’s opening an investigation into the MPP, saying they feel the policy violates the law.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said she’s ready to go back to the border “at the drop of a hat” if she feels it’s needed.
The renewed attention comes at a time when the overcrowding that led to the tough conditions has dissipated.
The nearly 20,000 migrants in CBP custody in June has dwindled to fewer than 3,000 now. That’s less than capacity, and only half the “critical mass” point, Mr. Morgan said.
Meanwhile apprehensions, which at the peak of the surge topped 4,000 people a day, are now below 1,000 a day on average. It’s the lowest point in two years.
CBP officials aren’t ready to say the border crisis is over, but they say they have found ways to mitigate the worst abuses of last year.
Catch-and-release at the border is “virtually” ended, save for some humanitarian cases, which amount to 5% of crossers.
And operations have returned to a sort of normal. All 750 CBP field officers that had been detailed to assist Border Patrol agents are back at their regular duties. And agents who had been making 80 trips a day to hospitals at the peak of the surge now make between 30 and 35, said Robert E. Perez, the deputy commission at CBP.
The Washington Times reported in December that President Trump and his team, stymied by partisan gridlock in Congress, had effectively outsourced the border problem to Mexico and Central American governments.
Through threats of tariffs and withhold of foreign assistance the administration pressured those countries to do more to stop the flow of illegal immigrants fleeing their homes or crossing their territory en route to the U.S.
Mr. Morgan on Tuesday said it all begins with Mr. Trump.
“The success that I’ve outlined is absolutely a direct result of this president’s strategies and the accompanied network of policies and initiatives developed by this agency,” he said.
He said, though, that Congress still needs to act in order to make permanent the gains. Right now, the policies rest on cooperation from Mexico and Central American partners who could change their stance at any moment.
The good news on illegal crossings has been matched with increasingly grim numbers on drugs.
CBP says seizures of hard narcotics at the border have soared in recent months, suggesting more is getting through, too.
Mr. Morgan said the Drug Enforcement Administration calculates that more than 95% of the methamphetamine they seized in 2018 came across the southwestern border. That, he said, makes every state in the country experiencing a drug abuse crisis a border state, and should make all residents care about a secure border.
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