WASHINGTON — Democrats challenged the head of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection on the agency’s “culture of cruelty” at a House subcommittee hearing on Wednesday. CBP Chief Carla Provost repeatedly denied the notion of a toxic culture at her agency.
Subcommittee Chairwoman Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) said that there is a “dangerous subculture at the agency that cannot be tolerated and must be addressed.” She was referring to offensive comments in a CBP private Facebook group, allegations of detained children being kicked to wake them up by CBP agents, and reports of abuse and sexual assault of detained migrants by CBP officers.
“A few bad apples are not representative of the organization,” Provost said. “We need to take action on those who have violated conduct.”
Rep. Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fla.) questioned Provost about the 20 recent cases of children who were detained at the border but had at least one parent living in the United States, which she said directly conflicts with the definition of “unaccompanied child.”
Wasserman-Schultz said that in at least one case, a detained boy was not allowed to use a phone to call his mother, who was already in the U.S. Provost agreed that should not have happened and the case is being investigated.
“We allow them to make a phone call,” she said.
Wasserman-Schultz asked whether CBP would be conducting a “comprehensive investigation” on the agency’s overall treatment of unaccompanied children. Provost responded that each case will be investigated on an individual basis.
Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) asked about the continued separation of families even after the zero tolerance policy was terminated: “If you believe there is no threat to the child, shouldn’t there be no separation?”
“There are certain circumstances where we do still have to separate families,” Provost said. She explained that if a child crosses the border with someone other than a parent or legal guardian, the law requires them to be separated. Aunts and uncles, relatives who frequently approach the border with children, will continue to be separated from the children, she said.
Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) said that criminals are using children to illegally cross the border.
Provost agreed. “Smugglers are taking advantage of these children and the family that are coming across, making money off these people and putting their lives at risk,” she said.
Republicans and Democrats alike said that the overcrowding at detention centers leaves CBP officials swamped with tasks that are outside of their scope, taking away from what Tennessee Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, the top Republican on the subcommittee, called their “primary position of security at the border.”
Provost echoed the concern, saying that CBP “has been forced to divert between 40 and 60 percent of its manpower away from their border security mission to provide humanitarian aid to migrating families and children.”