TUCSON — Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and Republican Sen. John Cornyn kicked off on Tuesday a two-day tour of the U.S.-Mexico border.
The two senators toured facilities in Tucson housing migrants apprehended along Arizona’s border with Mexico, including unaccompanied children. The pair is scheduled on Wednesday to visit similar facilities along Texas’ Rio Grande Valley.
Sinema, D-Ariz., said the visit is aimed at learning about differences in migration and enforcement patterns along the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as to boost support for a bipartisan bill she introduced with Cornyn, R-Texas, that is aimed at addressing “immediate” needs at the border.
“As border state senators … we represent different political parties, but we share the same interest of wanting to find solutions that are workable for our states and for our country,” Sinema said.
Tuesday’s visit began with a tour of the air command center for the U.S. Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, which covers the eastern two-thirds of Arizona’s border with Mexico.
Sinema and Cornyn also visited a 90,000 square-foot “soft-sided facility,” a collection of air-conditioned tents, that the Border Patrol opened in Tucson in early May to house up to 250 unaccompanied children apprehended at the Arizona border.
The number of unaccompanied children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border spiked in the first three months of the year, peaking in March, according to monthly data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The drastic increase in the arrival of migrant children and families overwhelmed U.S. border officials and generated concerns over their holding conditions while in CBP custody.
CBP is allowed to hold children for up to 72 hours, but the agency struggled to meet that standard during the peak in arrivals, prompting the federal government to open several emergency shelters.
In Arizona, agents in the Tucson Sector saw a 269 percent increase in the arrival of unaccompanied children from January to March, CBP statistics showed.
During Tuesday’s tour, Sinema and Cornyn visited the soft-sided facility that Border Patrol opened in Tucson in response to that increase. It boosted processing and temporary holding capacity for children. Border Patrol officials also opened a similar facility in Yuma.
Sinema said she had some concerns about the care of minors at the border, but added that she was “pleased” with some of the improvements she saw during her visit to the tent facility in Tucson. These include outdoor play areas for children and the use of actual blankets instead of mylar blankets.
“Something that was new that actually, I had never seen at a facility before … but they have the ability to dim the lights at night time in the Tucson facility,” she said. “And that is not currently the practice, for instance, in the Yuma facilities. … But that’s a big deal.”
Following their tour of CBP facilities, Sinema and Cornyn toured the Casa Alitas Welcome Center, a migrant shelter operated by Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona in Tucson.
The shelter receives asylum seekers apprehended at the Arizona border and released on their own recognizance or under humanitarian parole. Volunteers test migrants for COVID-19 and help them arrange transportation to their relatives’ location around the U.S.
Teresa Cavendish, the director of Casa Alitas, said she was encouraged by the visit. She raised concerns about the vulnerability of migrants with medical needs, as well as the separation of migrant children from other family members they traveled with who are not the parents.
Canvendish said she emphasized the need for a more humanitarian approach in response to ongoing challenges at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“That’s beholden on all of us, whether we are with various (Department of Homeland Security) agencies, whether we’re with (non-governmental organizations), that we are all called to respond in a way that acknowledges and supports the human dignity,” she said.
Sinema and Cornyn’s visit is intended to drum up support for the Bipartisan Border Solutions Act, a bipartisan bill that they filed jointly in the Senate.
If it becomes law, the measure would establish regional processing centers at the Southwestern U.S. border to speed up asylum processing and would boost the hiring of additional immigration judges and support staff to tackle a growing backlog in cases, estimated at 1.3 million cases as of April, according to Syracuse University’s Transaction Records Access Clearinghouse.
Sinema and Cornyn said the bill is not meant to fix the nation’s broken immigration system but is instead intended to address some of the short-term issues.
Cornyn, the former Senate GOP whip who Sinema described as a key figure in generating Republican support for the measure, touted the bipartisan and bicameral support for the measure. Two Texas congressmen, Democrat Henry Cuellar and Republican Tony Gonzales, introduced a companion bill in the House.
“If somebody’s got a better idea, we’re all ears. But we don’t see a lot of hands going up,” Cornyn said. “When somebody is asking what can we do to deal with this crisis, we raised our hand and said ‘we got an idea, work with us.'”
Sinema added that the bill would free up agents to continue patrolling the border. She said she learned Tuesday during the visit to the soft-sided facility that the Tucson Sector pulled 103 agents to care for migrant children and families.
“That’s a 103 agents who are not out on the field interdicting the more violent and dangerous individuals who engage in trafficking,” she said
On Wednesday, Sinema and Cornyn will travel to his home state. They will tour migrant holding facilities in the Rio Grande Valley, which remains the busiest crossing route along the U.S.-Mexico border.
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