WASHINGTON — Vice President Mike Pence toured two detention facilities on the Texas border Friday, including a Border Patrol station where hundreds of men were crowded in sweltering cages without cots.
Some of the men said they were hungry and had been held there for 40 days or longer.
"Look, this is tough stuff," Pence acknowledged at a later news conference.
"I knew we'd see a system that is overcrowded," he added. "It's overwhelmed and that's why Congress has to act."
Pence's office said the tour was part of an effort to show the Trump administration is providing adequate care for migrants. But the scene the vice president witnessed is sure to spark new criticism of the conditions facing migrants in U.S. government facilities.
The caged migrants were being held in an area at the McAllen Border Patrol station. When detainees saw reporters arrive, many began shouting, saying they had been there for 40 days or more and they were hungry and wanted to brush their teeth. Agents guarding the cages were wearing face masks. The press pool covering the vice president was removed within 90 seconds.
The conditions were described by a pool reporter from The Washington Post, who said the fenced cages were so crowded that it was impossible for all the men to lie on the concrete.
The scene resembled what an inspector general found in a scathing report delivered last week based on trips to Border Patrol facilities near the Rio Grande, including the station Pence visited. The report quoted a senior government manager as calling the situation a "ticking time bomb."
Michael Banks, the agent in charge of the McAllen station Pence visited, said the men held there were allowed to brush their teeth once a day. He said they were given deodorant after showering, but conceded many of the men had not showered for 10 or 20 days. He also said the longest any man had been there was 32 days.
President Donald Trump said earlier Friday that he had dispatched Pence to the border to dispel reports of dire conditions at the migrant detention centers.
"They're crowded because we have a lot of people, but they're in good shape," Trump said. He complained about "phony" reporting on conditions by The New York Times.
Earlier in his tour, Pence visited another detention facility with a series of large white tents where most of the detainees were lying on kindergarten-like mats with thin, tinfoil-like blankets. Many of the families there were to be released within 72 hours. Pence told reporters every family he spoke to there said they were being well cared for.
"And while we hear some Democrats in Washington, D.C., referring to U.S. Customs and Border facilities as 'concentration camps,' what we saw today was a facility that is providing care that every American would be proud of," Pence said.
After visiting the second site, Pence had a more sober assessment. He stressed that he had called for more Department of Homeland Security spending because of the overcrowded situation, including a $4.6 billion humanitarian aid package that Congress passed recently.
The Trump administration has also been under fire over conditions inside a Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas, where children were found in filthy conditions and keeping watch over younger kids amid the overcrowding. Five immigrant children have died since late last year after being detained by the government.
Central American families fleeing violence, poverty and drought have been coming to the U.S. in record numbers this year, peaking in May, when the Border Patrol made nearly 133,000 apprehensions. Facilities to detain adults and children quickly filled up, forcing many migrants to languish in unsuitable Border Patrol facilities much longer than the 72 hours normally required by law.