Democrats pivoted Wednesday from a divisive fight over a border bill to what they label the government's "willful neglect" and "callous" treatment of thousands of detained migrants, even as President Donald Trump defended Border Patrol agents and said many people being held "are living far better now than where they came from."
Democratic outrage was fueled by lawmakers who reported overcrowded, unsanitary conditions at South Texas detention facilities they visited this week, observations that a report by the Homeland Security Department's inspector general seemed to confirm. In addition, a Facebook group for Border Patrol agents surfaced that included flippant posts about migrants perishing in U.S. custody and references to two female House Democrats as "hoes."
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called for the firing of Mark Morgan, acting commissioner of the federal Customs and Border Protection Agency. He said the reports of migrants' plight and the Facebook group "paint a picture of a toxic culture" and said Morgan and other agency leaders "are too callous about the way in which children and their families are treated."
Morgan took the agency's top post barely a week ago, after then-acting Commissioner John Sanders resigned amid an outcry over the revelation that children were being held in miserable conditions at one of the agency's Texas facilities.
The House Oversight and Reform Committee planned a July 12 hearing on the treatment of detained families and the conditions under which they are held. The Democratic-led panel has invited Morgan and Kevin McAleenan, acting Homeland Security Department secretary, to testify.
In addition, the House Judiciary Committee was planning its own hearing this month to examine conditions for holding migrants. It was unclear who the witnesses would be and when it would occur, a panel spokesman said.
"What we're seeing is willful neglect of these people," said Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, leader of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who toured two Texas detention facilities with other House Democrats this week. He later released a cell phone video he secretly recorded showing women sitting on sleeping bags on what appear to be concrete floors, and he and others said detainees described going days without needed medicine or showers.
In a series of tweets, Trump defended Border Patrol agents, saying they "are not hospital workers, doctors or nurses," and made no concessions about the conditions at detention centers. The administration has long said federal agencies trying to cope with the growing flow of migrants across the southern border were overwhelmed and based its request for the $4.6 billion border package that Congress approved last week on the need to improve those facilities.
"Many of these illegals aliens are living far better now than where they came from, and in far safer conditions," Trump wrote.
Though many migrants are fleeing nations beset by war, crime and poverty, there have been few defenders of the lack of adequate space, water and food that many of them have faced after being detained by U.S. authorities.
Trump also said the best way to address the flood of people from Central America trying to enter the U.S. is to "tell migrants not to come into our country unless they are willing to do so legally." And he expressed anew his preference for admitting people based on their education and professions, not family relationships to immigrants already in the country, adding, "This way we have no problems at all!"
Democrats' focus on the plight of the thousands held along the southern border as they await permission to enter the U.S. promises to unite the party far more than they were last week during a messy battle over the $4.6 billion border bill.
The legislation's approval split Democrats between those saying it lacked sufficient constraints on how the administration would use the money and others saying it was more important to quickly provide the funds. It ended up pitting liberals against moderates and Senate Democrats, who strongly supported the measure as the best achievable compromise, against House Democrats, who were badly divided.
Congress approved the measure and Trump signed it Monday. Congress returns next week from a July 4 recess, and Democrats seem certain to continue concentrating on the treatment of migrants.
One leading liberal, Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., said progressives want to put provisions setting care standards into must-pass spending bills in coming weeks. "This is not a done issue," he said in an interview.
Rep. Lou Correa, D-Calif., a Hispanic Caucus member and a leader of Democrats' conservative-leaning Blue Dogs Coalition, called the $4.6 billion "a Band-Aid that doesn't stop the bleeding."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi released a letter she sent Trump saying the government should immediately set health and sanitary standards for detained migrants, agree to hold children in temporary shelters no longer than 90 days and notify Congress of children's deaths within 24 hours.
Hindered by internal divisions, House Democrats failed to force those protections into the border measure, which the Republican-run Senate had already approved.
Before the House signed off on the Senate measure, Vice President Mike Pence told Pelosi the administration would consider acting administratively on those proposals, according to a person familiar with their conversation who described the discussion only on condition of anonymity. Pelosi and Trump spoke by telephone on Friday, a day after the House voted to give the bill final congressional approval.
"Thank you for your attention to the safety of children at the border," Pelosi wrote in the letter, which was sent Monday and released Tuesday.
AP congressional correspondent Lisa Mascaro contributed.