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Cory Booker: I went to the US-Mexico border. What I saw there horrified me.

What I witnessed at the border made me realize our asylum system is broken.

A concertina barbed-wire fence stands next to a border fence that separates the US and Mexico in the state of New Mexico.
Luke Sharrett/Getty Images/Bloomberg

A few weeks ago, I traveled to a border community in South Texas to witness firsthand the human impact of the crisis brought about by President Trump’s cruel immigration policies.

I’m emotionally raw from the trip. How our country treats immigrants coming to our nation — many fleeing violence and oppression in their home countries — will haunt me for a long time. Many of us have ancestors who came to the US fleeing famine or oppression. None of us would want one of our ancestors treated like we are currently treating people at the border.

The first thing I did after landing in McAllen, Texas, just after midnight on Sunday morning was drive to the border crossing nearby, the Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge. I wanted to see the process endured by asylum seekers — people seeking a legal path to becoming US citizens — and what their first encounter with America is like.

In the dark morning hours, I walked the length of the pedestrian bridge. As I crossed into Mexico, a Mexican official urged me to be extremely careful. “Cuidado” (“watch out”), he kept saying, driving home the point that crossing into that community in Mexico at that time of night was not safe.

I walked back into the US, along the very path so many others have walked to seek asylum at the port of entry on the far side of the bridge. But halfway across, stationed precisely on the line dividing the US from Mexico above the Rio Grande — some few hundred yards from the building where asylum seekers can legally present themselves to American immigration officials — were three Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents. Their job was to prevent people seeking asylum from setting foot on US soil.

The bridge was empty that night, but we learned later that many refugees are made to wait for days on bridges like this one or told to come back another time. They’re prevented from formally seeking asylum. Border Patrol officers readily admitted to me in the darkness that’s what they do, saying “no capacity.” It seemed like more of an excuse than a reality.

These same border officers also warned me, as the Mexican official did, that it wouldn’t be safe if I crossed into Mexico, adding that I “definitely had eyes on” me when I was over there. I wondered how could they tell these families, many with children, to go back into a situation they knew was dangerous. And I thought of the many vulnerable families trying to legally claim asylum at this crossing point who ended up deciding their only option was to try another, more dangerous way into the US — after being forced to wait for sometimes days in the middle of a bridge in the heat of Texas without readily available food or water.

Facing this painful decision, and denied the ability to legally present themselves for asylum, these desperate humans fall into a Trump trap: They became what he has termed “illegals” who are “infesting” our nation.

I saw a courtroom packed with people reduced to case numbers en masse

Later that morning, I sat in a federal court proceeding for another perspective on the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy. It’s led to a flood of immigrants being criminally charged with illegal entry misdemeanors.

The entire courtroom was full, every seat taken by immigrant defenders — some who I assumed were forced to enter the US illegally after being denied an opportunity to legally enter at a port of entry. Most of them looked young; I wondered if some of them were even 18. At least 70 were people shackled at the feet and packed sitting shoulder to shoulder. It seemed these immigrants hadn’t had a chance for a change of clothing or even a shower — the courtroom smelled strongly of stale sweat.

The magistrate judge was patient and kind and seemed to recognize the dignity of those before him as well as the impossibility of accepting so many pleas at once. But none of these people got a rigorous defense or a court hearing that properly reflects a country that purports to have the greatest system of justice in the world. The judge went down the row and repeated the same charges over and over and over again — and in the end, often weary voices mostly just uttered, “Culpable.” Guilty.

Individuality and an abundance of different circumstances were reduced to a huddled mass shackled at the ankles. I witnessed no questions about why specific people had come to the United States, no questions if any of them came with children or other family, whether they feared for their lives, or what drove them over the border. It was heartbreaking to watch these individuals be reduced to case numbers en masse.

I saw people packed like sardines into cages

I also visited Catholic Charities’ Humanitarian Respite Center — a temporary shelter in McAllen that provides a warm shower, water, food, and a place to sleep for those who are fortunate enough to be released from custody. It was here I found a wellspring of hope; Sister Norma and the many volunteers who help run this center are doing an astounding job, working around the clock to help people with nowhere else to turn. I met people from all over the country, from California to Iowa to my hometown of New Jersey. Their determination and unconditional kindness represents the best of who we are.

Unfortunately, volunteer nurses and other medical professionals told me that many of the children they treated who had come from detention centers were dehydrated; some had fleas or had come down with chicken pox and other illnesses.

Tears were shed as these volunteers and medical professionals called on me to help change policies, to help ensure that we took better care of the children in our nation. I was moved by their descriptions, their sense of hurt at what they were witnessing and their determination to keep helping. I was impressed by a group of New Jerseyans I met who had found out that a couple of medical student volunteers were running out of money and, knowing how invaluable people with medical training were to the shelter, offered to pay their hotel bills so they could stay longer. They didn’t just preach love for their neighbor — they were living it without exception or qualification.

After visiting the bridge and the courthouse, and hearing about the conditions endured by some of these children coming out of government custody, I headed to the Customs and Border Protection detention facility to see their process for detaining immigrants and how they treat people in custody.

In one section of the detention center, people were packed like sardines into cages from front to back, shoulder to shoulder, with barely any room to move. All you could see were horizontal, exhausted bodies lying on the ground — you could barely see the floor; the rustling of the foil blankets detainees were issued was a constant sound.

Call it what you want — a prison, a detention center, a camp — it was some of the more difficult conditions I have seen in a US facility of any kind.

In the section for children, families were sitting behind fencing that resembled cages, several of them scattered through a big room. Doors were open that allowed more circulation and less crowding than in the other areas, but it still felt like a large cage.

I saw children of all ages. A couple of very young children did not have a parent or guardian with them. It was good to see that many of the border agents held the children and clearly tried to comfort and nurture them (though agents were told that they are not allowed to touch children, even to comfort them). I honor these CBP officers for their compassion amid so much distress.

It was good to see facilities for showers and where dirty, dusty clothing from long, difficult travel could be washed and eventually returned to the immigrants.

Yet I left there with a strong conviction that we could and must do much better by the children. From the facilities to the processing to even the extent of the medical evaluations, our nation could and must do a lot better to reflect our values in the way we treat immigrants to our soil.

What’s happening at the border is unacceptable. But people want change.

From my trip to the border, one thing is abundantly clear: We are at a moment of moral crisis in America.

We have a president who tweets:

“We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country. When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came. Our system is a mockery to good immigration policy and Law and Order. Most children come without parents …”

Donald Trump wants to heighten fear, stir stereotypes, and exaggerate our nation’s vulnerabilities while denying our country’s unparalleled strength and unmatched power to help others — denying our ability to effectuate pragmatic policies that improve our safety and affirm our values.

The people I talked to in McAllen, including Republican-appointed court officials, love their nation and their border community deeply. They want a fair system for all, a system that recognizes the humanity of our neighbors. There were so many pragmatic people in this border community who know we could do so much better — that our current behavior makes America less safe and less strong in the long run. They believe that when America stands up and does the right thing, even if it’s more difficult in the short term, we grow stronger, safer, and more noble.

People in border communities know that none of our families made it to where we are on our own — not mine, not yours, and not President Trump’s. We all had a helping hand, support from strangers and friends. All of our ancestors experienced acts of grace, mercy, and forgiveness and countless small acts of kindness.

Right now in the border crisis, there are agents of love and agents of fear. My hope is that we don’t let fear and the hate it yields divide us beyond repair. Despite the heartbreak I saw at the border, I will always have faith that in America, ultimately, love prevails.

But nothing is automatic. The arc of the moral universe does bend toward justice, but like our ancestors before us, we must be the arc benders.

Cory Booker is a US senator representing the state of New Jersey and a member of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over immigration and naturalization policies in the United States. Before being elected to the Senate in 2013, Booker was the mayor of Newark.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece misstated the time frame of Booker’s border visit.

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