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Trump says Cummings lied about conditions in migrant detention facilities. Did he?

President Trump’s recent verbal attacks on Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., were sparked by the congressman’s criticism of migrant facilities on the U.S.-Mexico border. The White House disputed Cummings’ characterizations. So what do we actually know about what’s going on in these detention centers? Judy Woodruff talks to the National Immigration Forum’s Ali Noorani about a “lack of transparency.”

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We will get into the politics behind the president's rhetoric later in the program.

    But, for now, let's examine the underlying policy the White House says is at issue. As we just heard, the White House says the president's attacks on Cummings were, in part, driven by the congressman's criticism of the administration's immigration policies.

    Here is an exchange from a House Oversight hearing on child separation at the border earlier this month. This is Cummings and Kevin McAleenan. He's the acting U.S. secretary of homeland security.

  • Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md:

    You feel like you're doing a great job, right? Is this is what you're saying?

  • Kevin McAleenan:

    We're doing our level best in a very challenging…

  • Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.:

    What does that mean? What does that mean when a child is sitting in their own feces, can't take a shower? Come on, man. What's that about?

    None of us would have our children in that position. They are human beings. Come on. We're better than that. And I don't want us to lose sight of that. When we're dancing with the angels, these children will be dealing with the issues that have been presented to them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    As Lisa noted in her tape, the president's acting chief of staff says Cummings' claims are false.

    So let's examine the facts, what we know and what we don't, about the current conditions on the southwest border.

    I'm joined now by Ali Noorani. He is executive director of the National Immigration Forum. It's an immigration advocacy group.

    Ali Noorani, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

  • Ali Noorani:

    Thank you for having me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, as we have been hearing and reporting, the president's chief of staff, acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, is saying what Congressman Cummings said is, we heard him say, illegitimate, lies, when he talked ant the conditions of families and children on the border.

    Is there evidence one way or another about this?

  • Ali Noorani:

    So the Department of Homeland Security has an Office of Inspector General. This lives within DHS, but doesn't report to the political structure of DHS.

    So, it is an independent, unbiased investigation arm. They found, among other things, that — when they did inspections earlier this year, they found one cell that had 71 men that should have only had 41. They had one cell that was 50 — stuffed with 50 women, when it should only have 40.

    Two of the five facilities that were examined over the course of their investigation were not providing children clean clothes or opportunities to take a shower.

    As the vice president said, this is tough stuff, but the administration is clearly not living up just to humanity and treating people with compassion.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In fact, I want — Ali Noorani, I want to air a portion of an interview that my colleague William Brangham did.

    This was in late June. This was with an American attorney who had been to the border detention facilities. She saw for herself some of the conditions.

    Here's part of that interview.

  • Warren Binford:

    We have children caring for other young children. For example, we saw a little boy in diapers — or he had no diapers on. He should have had a diaper on. He was 2 years old,.

    And when I asked why he didn't have diapers, I was told he didn't need it. He immediately urinated. And he was in the care of another child.

    Children cannot take children. And yet that's how they're trying to run this facility. The children are hardly being fed anything nutritious, and they are being medically neglected.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So she's testifying or saying in an interview — and she had given a number of interviews where she shared this information, and yet the pictures, video hard to come by.

  • Ali Noorani:

    And what we have right now is this really, really incredibly ugly political debate, by and large, driven by the White House, that is trying to lead the American public not to remember what they're seeing and what they're hearing.

    So, over the last two years, we have traveled to nearly three dozen cities across the country, from Fort Wayne, Indiana, to other conservative communities. In every single community, what they're asking for, what are the practical and pragmatic solutions that treat people humanely and keep us safe as a nation?

    People are tired of the political rhetoric. And they see what's going back and forth. And they're asking, OK, who's going to actually fix the problem? And, right now, the administration is not fixing the problem. Congress in the supplemental budget gave the administration about $4 billion to hopefully fix the problem.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just briefly, I want to come back to, again, the specifics of what Mr. Cummings said in that exchange with Kevin McAleenan, when he said children sitting in feces.

    There's a story in The New York Times. This ran out on June the 21st, I think. It said, among other things: "Children as young as 7 and eight, many of them wearing clothes caked with snot and tears, caring for infants they have just met. Toddlers without diapers are relieving themselves in their pants."

    My question is, how do we know this is true?

  • Ali Noorani:

    So we know it's true, by and large, because of the OIG report.

    I think Republicans and Democrats…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The same…

  • Ali Noorani:

    Office of Inspector General report. I think that's what we're depending on as an advocacy organization.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's a government organization.

  • Ali Noorani:

    They are sending experts into the field to do these investigations.

    What they are putting out there is not colored by one political stripe or the other. They're saying, these are the facts on the ground. Our detention facilities as a nation are not living up to standards.

    Congressman Cummings, Chairman Cummings, in his role as Oversight, he — it's his job to challenge the administration on what they're doing, what they're not doing. And it's that Office of Inspector General report, those are the facts of the case.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Why isn't there more — why aren't there more pictures, more video of these facilities?

  • Ali Noorani:

    Well, this administration, to a large degree, even the previous administration — the Obama administration did open their facilities eventually.

    This administration is really holding close what is happening in these facilities. You see reports of children being moved from facility to facility, being lost. The lack of transparency leads to a lot of questions in voters' minds, OK, what is going on? And, again, who is actually solving this problem?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What about conditions right now? Here we are, July, the end of the month of July. Much of this testimony came about a month, month-and-a-half ago. Have things gotten any better? Has it changed?

  • Ali Noorani:

    So, because of two factors, we're starting to see numbers at least plateau of individuals crossing the border to apply for asylum.

    The first factor is the nearly 30,000 enforcement officials that Mexico's put at their southern border and the northern border. The second factor is the summer. We always see the numbers drop over the summer.

    So we hope that, as the numbers start to plateau, and the $4 billion given by Congress to DHS and HHS to actually address the problem, we will hopefully see — we won't be seeing pictures and sights and sounds of children sitting in feces, or we won't be hearing those stories.

    We should — as a nation, we should be treating people and children humanely. And now DHS and HHS have the resources to do that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you have a sense of how this controversy is going to affect how well these migrants are treated by the United States, whether there are better conditions or not for them?

    Do you have — and you talk to two people who work on immigration issues all the time.

  • Ali Noorani:

    So, over the weekend in The New York Times, there was this incredible set of reporting by Sonia Nazario. She's the author of "Enrique's Journey," which is one of the landmark books in the space.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Ali Noorani:

    And she reports from Honduras of how the situation continues to get worse.

    One of the organizations there, an NGO called Association for a More Just Society, they're actually losing their foreign aid from the U.S. because of the Trump administration's decisions.

    So, as an administration, as a nation, we are not actually addressing the problem in Honduras or are making the problems worse over time along the border, because we don't — we're not putting immigration judges that are free of political influence by DOJ.

    We are not, as of yet, improving facilities. Hopefully, that will change. So there are a lot of factors, a lot of things in control of the administration to actually address this problem. And up to this point, they have not taken those steps.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, meantime, as we know, tightening asylum, the interpretation of asylum laws, the agreement with Guatemala.

  • Ali Noorani:

    Right, between alleged — or claiming that Guatemala is a safe third country, which is clear, absolutely not, but then also requiring asylum applicants to remain in Mexico.

    And you — we're seeing stories of men, women being extorted and subject of violence while they're waiting in Mexico.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ali Noorani with the National Immigration Forum, thank you very much.

  • Ali Noorani:

    Thank you. Thank you.

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