Police officers were called to a center in Brownsville, Texas, on Sunday when a Democratic senator tried to visit children who had been separated from their parents under the Trump administration’s new policy toward families trying to enter the United States.
Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon says in a Facebook video that Casa Padre, a shelter run for the federal government by the non-profit Southwest Key Programs, was housing possibly hundreds of refugee children who had been removed from their parents. He arrived at what he said was a former Walmart after he was refused an official visit by the federal Office of Refuge Resettlement.
“I think it’s unacceptable that a member of Congress is not being admitted to see what’s happening to children whose families are applying for asylum,” he says in the Facebook video.
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U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero tolerance” policy last month intended to dissuade undocumented Central American families from trying to enter the U.S. Everyone crossing the border illegally is to be prosecuted and children will be separated from mothers or fathers who are jailed. Before most parents were allowed to remain with their children in family shelters while they awaited the disposition of asylum or deportation cases.
As of result of the new policy, officials are running out of space to shelter children who have been taken from their parents at the U.S. border, according to NBC News. As of Sunday, nearly 300 of the 550 children in custody at border stations had spent more than 72 hours there, the time limit set by the federal government for stays in temporary facilities. The stations often lack adequate bedding or separate places for children to sleep.
Administration officials said last month that the ramped up enforcement would apply only to people arrested while trying to enter the U.S. illegally. Families who seek asylum at a designated port of entry would not be separated, according to NBC News.
But on Friday, NBC News reported that some parents seeking asylum had been separated from their children by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, according to Pueblo Sin Fronteras, which leads migrants to the U.S. in caravans.
In the Facebook video, Merkley, who was accompanied by reporters, asks two unidentified staff members whether he can enter the building and then requests to speak to a supervisor. While he is waiting for the supervisor to come outside, police officers arrive.
When the supervisor emerges, he says he is not allowed to issue a statement and eventually asks Merkley to leave. The police officers speak briefly with the senator.
Southwest Key Programs said in a statement that it regretted having to turn Merkley away, but that the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement prohibits any visits it has not approved. Southwest Key said it had contacted Merkley's staff about a possible visit.
“With (Office of Refugee Resettlement) approval, Southwest Key shelters have welcomed elected and other public officials at our facilites in the past, and will continue to do so, because we are proud of the caring environment we provide these children."
It said that Casa Padre was not a detention facility, but a shelter for minors who had crossed the border unaccompanied by adults and that it was licensed by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
The Administration for Children and Families, of which the Office of Refugee Resettlement is a part, said that no one who arrived unannounced at one of its shelters, even those claiming to be U.S. senators, would be permitted access to the children in its care.
“Thankfully for the safety, security and dignity of the children being cared for there, they were denied access,” it said in a statement.
The shelter that Merkley and five others tried to enter is for children who arrived in the United States unaccompanied by an adult, it said.
“Senator Merkley should respect the (unaccompanied alien children’s) program and engage in the appropriate processes, as many of his colleagues have done before him, to visit (Office of Refugee Resettlement) facilities,” it said. “We would welcome him to engage in that process so that he may visit the facility to make headway on this important issue, rather than just headlines.”
The Office of Refugee Resettlement is legally required to accept all unaccompanied children who have been apprehended and detained by other agencies. It provides for the children’s care until a sponsor is found, usually a relative, with whom they stay while their immigration cases are heard. About 85 percent of sponsors are parents or close relatives.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services operates more 100 shelters in approximately 17 states. Children spend on average 51 days in a shelter.
The deputy White House press secretary, Hogan Gidley, accused Merkley of “smearing hardworking, dedicated law enforcement officials.”
“No one is taking a public safety lecture from Sen. Merkley, whose own policies endanger children, empower human smugglers and drug cartels, and allow violent criminal aliens to flood into American communities,” Gidley said.
Merkley responded that the White House was smearing him because it could not defend an indefensible policy of snatching children from their parents.
“By doing so with taxpayer dollars, they are making all Americans complicit in this unconsciousnable action,” he said. “Americans have every right to full transparency about the cruelty being inflicted in our names.”