By Julio-Cesar Chavez
CLINT, Texas (Reuters) - Controversy broadsided the embattled U.S. Border Patrol agency Monday, as a high-profile U.S. Congresswoman touring detention facilities called conditions "horrifying" and as current and former agency staffers were alleged to have posted offensive comments about the lawmaker and migrants on a private Facebook page.
Migrants held at a border patrol station in Texas were subjected to psychological abuse and told to drink out of toilets, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said after a visit with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to the main border patrol facility in El Paso.
The tour, which also included a visit to a Clint, Texas, facility, followed reports from a government watchdog that immigrants were being housed in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.
"After I forced myself into a cell with women and began speaking to them, one of them described their treatment at the hands of officers as "psychological warfare," Ocasio-Cortez, a first-term New York Democrat, wrote on Twitter after leaving the El Paso border patrol station.
"This has been horrifying so far."
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which oversees Border Patrol, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on her statements about the visit.
The Border Patrol also came under fire on Monday following a report by the non-profit news site ProPublica that offensive content had been posted on a private Facebook group for current and former CBP officers.
Posts included jokes about the deaths of migrants and sexually explicit comments referencing Ocasio-Cortez, the news outlet said.
Reuters did not independently confirm the report.
"This isn’t about 'a few bad eggs,'" Ocasio-Cortez tweeted in response to the ProPublica report. "This is a violent culture."
CBP condemned the Facebook group and acknowledged that it may include a number of the agency's employees.
Matthew Klein, Assistant Commissioner of CBP's Office of Professional Responsibility, called the social media activity "disturbing" and said it violated the agency's code of conduct.
Klein said the matter had been referred to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) inspector general, which has jurisdiction over the CBP.
According to a screen shot published by ProPublica, the Facebook group had 9,500 members.
"These posts are completely inappropriate and contrary to the honor and integrity I see - and expect - from our agents day in and day out," U.S. Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost said in a statement.
"Any employees found to have violated our standards of conduct will be held accountable."
Conditions at U.S. facilities holding migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border have become a flashpoint since an internal government watchdog warned of "dangerous overcrowding" at the El Paso facility in May.
In June, immigration lawyers raised alarms over squalid conditions facing hundreds of children at another facility in Clint, Texas. The lawmakers visited both Texas facilities on Monday.
U.S. President Donald Trump has made cracking down on illegal immigration a centerpiece of his administration, but officials say a renewed crush of mostly Central Americans arriving at the border has strained resources.
Border apprehensions topped 132,000 in May, their highest levels in more than a decade.
During the legislators' visit Monday, Congresswoman Judy Chu, a California Democrat, spoke emotionally about what she saw.
"I will never forget the image of being in a cell and seeing 15 women, tears coming down heir faces as they talked about being separated from their children, about having no running water, and about not being able to know when they were going to get out since they had already been there 50 days."
She added, "A woman talked about being an epileptic and not having access to any medicine."
The Trump administration, criticized for a policy of family separation last year, says it now separates children from parents and legal guardians only if there is some perceived risk to the child.
It has given few details on the criteria for those decisions.
Border Patrol agents have expressed their own concerns about conditions at facilities, according to documents published Monday from the DHS Inspector General that supported the watchdog's May report.
The documents revealed U.S. agents feared riots by migrants being held in overcrowded and unsanitary cells and were "embarrassed" and "frustrated" by the detainees' conditions at El Paso.
The documents https://bit.ly/2XgmO5b were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request from website MuckRock and first reported by NBC News on Monday.
They showed DHS inspectors had found on a May 7 visit that more than half of the 756 immigrants being held at the El Paso facility were kept outside, and those inside were in cells packed at five times their capacity.
Border Patrol agents "remained armed in the holding areas because of their concerns with the overcrowding that potentially could result in volatile situations," the documents revealed.
Government inspectors saw migrants standing on toilets because there was not enough room in cells and other examples of unsanitary conditions leading to concerns about illness among the agents, the documents said.
CBP did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the documents.
The U.S. government responded to the report in a letter to the watchdog included in the supporting documents.
The situation "represents an acute and worsening crisis" and the surging numbers of migrants were overwhelming the agencies, the letter said.
U.S. Border Patrol agents complain of being understaffed and overwhelmed with the surge of families at the U.S.-Mexico border.
The agency has about 19,000 agents nationwide, less than the roughly 21,500 agents it is authorized to have. Border Patrol officials say the agency recruits non-stop but cannot get the numbers of recruits it needs.
In May, Provost said agents now spend at least 40 percent of their time as "child care professionals, medical caregivers, bus drivers, and food service workers," rather doing the law enforcement jobs they were trained for.
That has brought morale problems in hard-hit sectors such as El Paso, media say. One unnamed agent told El Paso TV station KVIA that officers' jobs had been reduced to "babysitting" migrants while smugglers exploited their absence on the border.
(Reporting by Julio-Cesar Chavez in Clint, Texas; Reporting and writing by Mica Rosenberg in New York; Additional reporting from Andy Sullivan and Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)