Senator Barred From Visiting Detained Refugee Kids

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., waits to be let inside a detention facility holding children separated from the asylum-seeking parents. The facility is housed in a former Walmart store in Brownsville, Texas. (Sen. Merkley via Facebook)

(CN) – Staff at a Texas detention center where hundreds of children are being held while their parents await hearings on their applications for asylum refused to allow U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley to access the facility over the weekend.

Merkley said the Trump administration is trying to hide what was happening inside the facility and called the children’s detention “a horrific policy for America.”

The Oregon Democrat told press he tried to arrange a visit to Casa Padre, a Brownsville, Texas, facility run by the nonprofit Southwest Key Programs under a contract with the Office of Refugee Resettlement, but staff with the Department of Homeland security told him he would not be allowed in. Merkley said the privacy concerns raised by the government were a sham and could be addressed by simply not talking to detainees who did not want their identities made public and by not taking pictures of kids detained in the facilities.

So on Sunday, Merkley went anyway. In a video recorded by his staff and posted on the senator’s Facebook page, he stood outside the facility, a converted Walmart, and tried to get a tour – or at least some answers.

“I think it’s outrageous that this facility is being closed off to the press and closed off to members of Congress,” Merkley said. “When an organization has something to hide, not allowing members of Congress to see it, in a democracy, is completely unacceptable and we have to push back.”

Waiting outside the building for a supervisor to show up, Merkley said the Trump administration’s new policy of separating asylum seekers from their kids was an entirely cynical one – calculated to reduce the number of families coming to the United States to seek safety.

“This is a Jeff Sessions strategy to basically deter families from seeking asylum in the United States by treating them horrifically when they arrive,” Merkley said. “They’ve come from horrific circumstances and then to be treated horrifically when they are here in the United States as the way to say ‘don’t come and seek asylum’ is simply wrong. This is not zero tolerance, this is zero humanity.”

Merkley said staff at the facility told him every child there was given a number that corresponded to their parents’ number, and that it was easy for parents to use the number to get information about their children. That claim runs counter to reports that asylum seekers were unable to locate their children after they were taken by U.S. officials at the border.

Merkley questioned whether staff there had told him the truth, and said the truth is part of what motivated his visit.  But he didn’t get any answers: staff at the facility said they could not give a statement and asked Merkley to leave.

“Without people coming and visiting these facilities and asking a lot of questions and pushing hard for answers, we don’t really know exactly what’s happening,” Merkley said as he walked away. “Saying that the price of seeking asylum is that your children will be taken from you, they will be sent someplace you don’t know and you don’t know how they will be cared for, and you won’t be able to find them or reach them is a horrific attitude for the United States. American citizens are funding this operation, and so every American citizen has a stake in how these children are being treated.”


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