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Congressman Tom Rice speaks at a town hall in Florence Tuesday evening.

FLORENCE, S.C. – Congressman Tom Rice said he saw more laughter than crying on a recent trip to the United States-Mexican border.

Rice spoke at a town hall held at Venus Restaurant Tuesday evening. Rice, a Republican, has represented Congressional District 7 since it was recreated following the 2010 Census.

“I went to the border,” Rice said. “I had been trying to go for a while but for one reason or another it didn’t work out. And then after AOC [Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York] went down there and said kids were drinking out of toilets and such, Sen. [Lindsey] Graham, who’s chairman of the Judiciary [committee] in the Senate, scheduled a trip to go down there.”

Graham, a Republican, is one of two senators from South Carolina.

Vice President Mike Pence was also on the trip.

Rice said Graham wanted the whole committee to go but the day before the trip all the Democrats on the committee elected not to go.

“So only the Republicans went,” Rice said.

He said he called Graham and asked if he could go, which Graham agreed to.

Rice said the group toured two facilities in McAllen, Texas. The first facility, he continued, was a place where families with children were brought.

“What it was it was a huge tent,” Rice said. “When I say tent, it’s not like a Coleman tent. It’s a tent the size of a football field with insulated walls. It was air conditioned. It was very orderly and very clean, supplies stacked to the ceiling — water, diapers, food— customs and border patrol they were taking 31 people a day to the hospital there in McAllen.”

He said he didn’t not see anyone being mistreated.

“I looked really hard for cages,” Rice said. “I didn’t see any cages. I looked really hard for people drinking out of toilets. I didn’t see anybody drinking out of toilets.”

When the people arrive at the center, Rice said, they enter a room with a lot of chairs where the agents of the Border Patrol gather information.

Then they are sent to a waiting room for 12-24 hours.

In that room, there are sleeping mats on the floor, a big TV for children to watch cartoons, play areas for the children.

“I saw more laughter than I saw crying,” Rice said.

The next room is a biometric collection area. It’s where the people crossing the border have their irises scanned and fingerprints taken. Agents also try to collect background information.

“And then, they turn them loose,” Rice said. “The average stay is 40 hours. Not 40 days but 40 hours. They take them to the airport and say, ‘Where do you want to go?’”

Some are also taken to a Catholic charity, Rice said.

Several countries in Latin America were originally colonized by the highly Catholic Spanish and Portuguese.

“It’s not like we’re holding families separate from children for long periods of time,” Rice said. “It’s not like these people are in any kind of distress.”

The next facility the group visited was a prison.

“This was not a fun place,” Rice said.

The group went into a command center in the center of the prison.

Rice described a location with several cells designed to hold around 50 people. He said around 75 people were being held in the cells.

“These are some rough-looking folks,” Rice said. “I’m sure not all of them were hardened criminals but there was a lot of hooting and hollering and a lot of wonderful gestures back and forth and so on.”

The control center, Rice said, had large TV with several camera feeds displayed. One of the feeds showed a group of people lying on mats that couldn’t otherwise be seen from the control center.

Pence asked about the location.

The agents told him that they had converted a garage into a holding cell.

Pence asked to visit the garage/holding cell.

The agents said no. As did the Secret Service.

Pence’s response: “Watch me.”

The group made their way to the area.

“It stunk really bad,” Rice said. “People were milling around and hollering at us and all that.”

He described the room as about half the size of a football field.

Rice said those in the garage/holding cell showered every day and were given three meals a day.

“Nobody appeared to me to be in any kind of discomfort,” he said.

After the second facility, the group appeared for a press conference at which Graham told the agents if they let one of the people in the second facility go they would answer to him.

Rice showed the crowd attending the town hall a picture from the room but asked that no one take a picture lest he expose himself to criminal liability if the photograph was published.

“I’m not making this up,” Rice said. “I’m not exaggerating. I’m telling you exactly what I saw.”

Rice was asked to reconcile his experience with that of Ocasio-Cortez and those who visited with her.

“There’s only two ways I can do that,” he said. “Either they were at a different place that Customs and Border Patrol was hiding from me or they were lying, one of the two.”

Rice said he didn’t believe the first option.

Another person attending asked about the trip being planned.

He said he suspected that Ocasio-Cortez’s trip was planned.

While on the trip, Rice spoke with Customs and Border Patrol officers who told him that the drug cartels have figured out the loopholes in the United States immigration laws including a law that if people claim asylum they can’t be deported and if they have children from the Golden Triangle, they can’t be deported, and the that agency can’t hold families with children for more than 20 days.

A cartel will send a member to a plaza, like a park, and collect fees from those wishing to go to the United States. The going rates are $5,000 for those with children and $8,000 for those without.

The figure increases for those without children because it’s harder to get those migrants across the border and sometimes the cartel has to hide them and disperse them.

Sometimes the cartel will rent the migrant a child. Some children have been caught multiple times.

Rice said the person heading to America is given a box lunch, directed to a bus, and driven halfway across Mexico before stopping to spend the night. The next day, the bus finishes the trip to the border and the people inside are directed to walk across the border.

Customs and Border Patrol, seeing the parade of people, will take them to a processing center like the one in McAllen that Rice toured.

Rice asked the crowd what they thought was happening 10 miles away at the border.

One answer was drugs. Rice added that criminals could be crossing the border.

Later, he addressed his opinions on immigration: mandatory e-verify and to change the asylum policy.

Rice also addressed a number of other issues at the town hall including gun control — he said he wants to allow the FBI to maybe search all three of the databases when conducting a background check and better laws to prevent those with mental health problems from accessing guns.

He also spoke about the need to find a way to lower prescription drug prices with sacrificing pharmaceutical innovation.

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Government and Poltics Reporter

I cover the city of Florence, the county of Florence, the state legislative delegation of Florence County and surrounding areas, and the federal delegation representing the Pee Dee for the Morning News.

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