WASHINGTON - Minimal food, freezing temperatures and no chance for sleep.
That's how three children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala described detention centers the U.S. government is using to house thousands of unaccompanied children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.
"In there, people couldn't sleep. We had to sleep on the floor, and they only gave us a thin nylon blanket," Mayeli Hernandez, 12, from Honduras, said through a translator. "There wasn't enough food. They only gave us two sandwiches a day."
The children testified Tuesday before the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a Democratic group that includes both senators and representatives, in a largely symbolic hearing without Republican representation. The children, all currently living with relatives in Long Island, N.Y., described how they arrived in the U.S. and pleaded with Congress not to send children back to violent situations in their home countries.
This is the first time Central American children have appeared directly before Congress to answer questions about the recent surge of children at the border.
Saul Martinez, 15, from El Salvador, traveled to the U.S. in April. He described being threatened by the Mara Salvatrucha gang, or MS-13, while simply riding his bicycle in the street in his hometown. On that same street, he said he saw a man shot and killed. Saul said he would be afraid for his life if he was deported.
"I came to the United States because I was afraid of the violence in El Salvador, and I don't want to have to go back to El Salvador to face this," Saul said through a translator.
Mayeli and Saul described their experience in U.S. detention centers as a struggle. When Saul crossed the Rio Grande River and into the U.S., he said he was immediately caught by the border patrol.
"I then had to walk to an immigration station where I was placed in a big building with 200 people," he said. The room was very cold, and I was shivering the whole time. There weren't any beds. They gave us nylon which barely even kept us warm," Saul said.
He said there was no privacy in the bathroom, so he and other children used blankets to create a curtain.
Customs and Border Patrol officials have repeatedly said that U.S. immigration enforcement resources, such as border patrol officers, are struggling to cope with the recent influx of children. They say detention centers are not equipped to handle the expected 60,000 children who will arrive this year.
Dulce Medina, 15, traveled to the U.S. from Guatemala five years ago with the help of a coyote, a person hired to help her cross the U.S.-Mexico border. She pleaded with lawmakers not to deport any children and to "put themselves in the shoes of the children arriving at the border."
"Would you want to be sent back to a place where someone tried to harm you? Please do what is best for the kids they are in desperate need of help," Dulce said.
Dulce has a green card, which gives her permanent residence, while both Mayeli and Saul are in the process of trying to obtain Special Juvenile Immigrant Status – which would allow them to stay in the U.S. legally. Their lawyers expect the legal process to go smoothly.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has said most of the children crossing the border will be sent home.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said it was good to finally hear directly from some of the children at the center of the debate and that the children need lawyers to guide them through the legal process.
"I must ask my colleagues to have a heart when it comes to people coming into our country," she said.
Republican lawmakers are demanding that the government focus more on deterrence and beefing up border security.
"We cannot allow this tragedy to continue. A country that has lost control of its borders has lost control of its future," Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said in a letter to President Barack Obama.
Congress is still debating how much additional funding to provide to help the government cope with the crisis at the border. The president requestednearly $4 billion dollars earlier this month.
Congress plans to recess Friday for five weeks.
Reach reporter Anna Giles at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-326-9861. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.