On Friday, July 19, Sen. Angus King returned from a trip to the McAllen U.S. Customs and Border Patrol processing center in Texas.
Following his visit, King shared mixed reactions with NEWS CENTER Maine, noting that conditions he saw had improved since previous visits, but wondering exactly what has implemented those changes.
"The conditions are far from ideal, that's for sure," King told NEWS CENTER Maine about the detention center, "but I think there's been significant improvement, just in the last month."
King said he believes that public attention and additional funding by Congress have helped result in new facilities, showers, clothing, and medical attention for the people there.
King added that he thinks the volunteers and workers on the ground are serious people who are doing the best they can to help improve the situation. They are sometimes helping more than 1,000 people a day.
"I think the visibility of the past six months or so has really led to some improvements," King said. "I think we have to get to the point where cruelty is not viewed as a public policy in order to deter people from coming here. It obviously isn't working."
King said wait times for people at the border seem to have been cut down. The last facility he visited had a wait of about 41 hours. The number of children in overcrowded conditions also seems to have been reduced -- down to about 350 from 2,700 about a week ago.
But the Senator is concerned that these improvements may be the result of a new policy President Trump's administration has enforced, ending asylum protections for migrants who pass through another country before arriving at the U.S. border.
This policy, enacted July 15, essentially forces asylum seekers to stay in Mexico and is "not working", according to King.
"It's dangerous. People are subject to gangs and traffickers. They get desperate, they try to swim the river -- and that is to me a thinly disguised attempt to bypass our asylum laws."
King said most of the people coming to the southern border are from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Another solution he suggested was to send aid to those countries, so people there don't have to "run for their lives".
Miles away in the Pine Tree State, Mainers are feeling the reverberations of the tense situation at the border. An influx of asylum seekers to Portland in June left the city scrambling to find housing solutions -- but King says asylum seekers have been a big part of Maine for a while.
"Many of them are now fully integrated into the community. Many of them have become citizens -- they’re paying taxes, and they’re contributing. We need workers, of course, everywhere in Maine."
King emphasized there is a different between asylum seekers, refugees, and immigrants -- and those labels are all different than criminals who are just passing over the border. He said the Trump administration should focus its energy on tracking criminals, rather than putting families as its "first target".
"There’s a difference between somebody who’s coming here and is running -- literally fearing for their life -- and somebody who has decided to try to cross the border illegally," King said, "and they should be treated differently."