Ayanna Pressley gave a powerful speech describing what she saw inside border detention facilities

"I cannot un-see what I’ve seen. I cannot un-feel what I experienced. I refuse to. Although it admittedly robs me of sleep and peace of mind."

Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., waits to testify before the House Oversight Committee hearing on family separation and detention centers, Friday, July 12, 2019 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Rep. Ayanna Pressley waits to testify before a House Oversight Committee hearing Friday on family separation and detention centers along the southern border. –Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

Last week, Rep. Ayanna Pressley and a group of her Democratic colleagues visited migrant detention facilities along the southern border in Texas to witness firsthand the reportedly squalid, overcrowded conditions. During a hearing Friday, the Massachusetts congresswoman testified to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform on what exactly it was like.

“I cannot un-see what I’ve seen,” she said. “I cannot un-feel what I experienced. I refuse to. Although it admittedly robs me of sleep and peace of mind.”

In her testimony to fellow oversight committee members, Pressley described sweltering, unmaintained conditions inside a facility in El Paso, uncooperative border patrol officers, and exhausted women who came to the country seeking asylum. The Boston Democrat said the delegation of House members visited the facility on a day that was 103 degrees outside. When she asked an officer about the temperature and “the heat index at which you bring folks indoors,” Pressley said she got no answer.

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Nor were other “basic questions” about the welfare of those being held in custody answered, Pressley said.

“This agency was never built, never designed, never trained for the care and keeping of families,” she said. “These families need trauma supports, case workers, clean water, adequate and nutritious food. Instead they have received a level of degradation we should be ashamed is occurring on American soil.”

When the delegation realized officers would not answer their questions, Pressley said they pushed their way into a small room where 10 to 15 women, holding thin blankets and sitting on concrete, were being held. Pressley said that fellow Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy III and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez translated their stories from Spanish.

“I held the hand of a woman who heaved sobs as she explained her deep fear that at any moment she could fall to the floor in a seizure,” Pressley recalled. “She is an epileptic and the medicine she relies on had been confiscated. And in fact she feared that by telling that truth, she would experience retaliation after we left and her medication would continue to be withheld.”

Another woman “wept in my arms crying for her baby,” she said.

“She didn’t care to know my name,” Pressley said. “She didn’t care to know who we were. She simply craved compassion. She wanted to be treated like a human being.  She asked me if she deserved to be treated like this, if they deserved to be treated like dogs.”

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Pressley said each of the women overcame “treacherous” journeys to reach the border. Experts say that children, families, and asylum seekers — most fleeing gang violence and poverty in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras — coming across the southern border have reached unprecedented levels.

“While I am not fluent in Spanish, Mr. Chairman, I want you to understand that there was no barrier to understanding in that room,” Pressley said. “We speak the universal language of pain, of a mother’s love, of justice. These women are not voiceless Mr. Chairman, but they are cruelly and criminally unheard. Not today. Today, Congress has an opportunity to listen and to act. After everything these women have endured — fleeing violence, deep poverty, sexual violence, domestic abuse — they arrive at the crest of this nation only to be torn apart from their babies and thrown in cages for seeking asylum, a legal right. A human right.”

Pressley said the women she met deserved the chance to make their case for asylum.

“They begged us for forgiveness, Mr. Chair,” she said. “What will we say to this generation of children and parents we imprisoned for seeking safety? We should be the ones begging for forgiveness. All they want is one more chance to make their way, to protect their families, to live. I do not know what is more American than that.”

Pressley’s testimony came after she and three other newly elected House Democrats publicly clashed with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi this week over their vote against a funding bill to provide the overstressed border patrol agencies with additional resources to house and provide basic necessities to migrants they detain. The Bay State congresswoman said at the time she could not support in “good conscience” additional funding for agencies she felt were inhumane and unaccountable.

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She wasn’t the only one to give a forceful speech. Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who sat next to Pressley, tearfully delivered testimony describing her interactions with separated children and parents who wanted to make the United States their home.

Ocasio-Cortez said the officials told her additional resources wouldn’t address the crisis at the border; she called for changes to the country’s metering and detention and for the United States to act as an “equal partner” with Latin America.