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Will Congress Approve New Humanitarian Standards for Immigrant Detention Facilities?

The House voted to pass legislation to ensure that migrants have access to water, food, and medical services. But the bill will likely face opposition in the Senate.
A bus transporting immigrants leaves a temporary facility at a U.S. Border Patrol Station in Clint, Texas, on June 21st, 2019. Lawyers who toured the facility said they witnessed inhumane conditions.

A bus transporting immigrants leaves a temporary facility at a U.S. Border Patrol Station in Clint, Texas, on June 21st, 2019. Lawyers who toured the facility said they witnessed inhumane conditions.

In December of 2018, Jakelin Caal Maquin, a seven-year-old Guatemalan girl, died two days after being apprehended by Customs and Border Protection. Three months later, an autopsy determined the cause of her death: a bacterial infection. In May of this year, 16-year-old Carlos Hernandez Vásquez was found lifeless in a CBP detention facility in Texas. That same month, a two-year-old boy became the fourth Guatemalan child to die after being apprehended at the border. And the number has just kept growing: At least seven children have reportedly died in custody or after being detained at the border since late 2018.

Last month, John Sanders, who was then CBP's acting commissioner, said in an interview with the Associated Press that more children would die if Congress didn't approve a border aid bill. Then, on the same day ProPublica revealed the existence of a racist Facebook group for Border Patrol officers, a visit by House representatives to detention centers in Texas sparked outrage over the treatment of migrants.

President Donald Trump has since signed a $4.6 billion border aid package, but did it go far enough to protect migrants' basic needs?

According to House Democrats, no. On Wednesday, the House passed a bill setting humanitarian standards for CBP detention facilities. The legislation would require the agency to conduct medical screenings with certified health professionals and translators less than 12 hours after adults are detained. For children, pregnant women, and people with disabilities, screenings would have to take place in under three hours. The bill also states that CBP must ensure that detainees have access to at least one gallon of drinking water and three meals per day, as well as toilets, hygiene products, and shelter.

"This legislation makes crystal clear that the United States has a responsibility to meet basic humanitarian standards of care for individuals in our custody," said Representative Raul Ruiz (D-California), who introduced the bill. "We must address the real crisis at our border—one that has already taken the lives of two young children—and recognize the essential human dignity of all people. I am confident that the steps identified in this resolution will help save children's lives."

The bill, which was only supported by one Republican in the House, is already facing opposition, raising questions about its chances to be approved by a Republican-controlled Senate. Representative Doug Collins (R-Georgia), the House Committee on the Judiciary Committee's ranking member, believes the proposed legislation doesn't address "the root causes of the crisis," and "would overwhelm the agency's already-stretched resources beyond what's reasonable."

"Our Border Patrol should be out interdicting narcotics, preventing illegal immigration and stopping child trafficking, not setting up full-service hospitals at every single facility," he wrote in a statement.

The humanitarian provisions in the bill were originally part of the House's version of the $4.6 billion emergency spending proposal to channel appropriations toward improving detention conditions and addressing security at the border. As the Texas Tribune explained, a significant amount of funds would be directed to the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees shelters housing unaccompanied children. The House proposal also included provisions aimed at preventing the use of funds for immigration enforcement programs as opposed to humanitarian aid.

But with Trump threatening a veto and under pressure from the outcry over inhumane conditions in migrant detention centers, Congress passed the bipartisan Senate version of the emergency spending bill—which has fewer restrictions on the implementation of funds.

According to the Hill, the bill setting humanitarian standards for CBP was amended at the last minute to include a section stating that "men and women of the U.S. Border Patrol should be commended for continuing to carry out their duties in a professional manner." It received the support of 41 House Democrats.