This past Sunday, Jeff Merkley, a Democratic senator from Oregon, visited Southwest Key Casa Padre, a shelter for migrant children in Brownsville, Texas, hoping to be allowed inside. A few minutes after the senator arrived, officials from the center called the police and requested that he leave the property.
Merkley’s visit was prompted by concern over reports that up to a thousand children were being housed in a converted Wal-Mart after being separated from their parents, the result of the new "zero-tolerance" policy announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions last month.
The new policy targets migrants who are caught crossing the US-Mexico border or requesting asylum, regardless of whether they are parents traveling with their children.
“This new policy is one we have never seen,” Merkley says. “The administration is saying that when people have gone through horrific circumstances abroad and apply for asylum in the US, we’re going to double down on cruelty to the children in order to dissuade them from actually coming to seek asylum. That's just reprehensible, unacceptable, un-American, immoral and it needs to end.”
Since 2003, the Department of Health and Human Services has been placing children in facilities run by its Office of Refugee Resettlement, and the numbers have only been increasing. In 2015, more than 33,000 children were referred by the Department of Homeland Security. In 2017, that number rose to more than 40,000.
Merkley wanted to get a tour of the Brownsville facility to see first-hand the conditions these children are experiencing. Many of the children are reportedly minors who arrived alone in the US, but many others arrived with their families and have been forcibly separated from their parents as their parents await asylum hearings.
After the children are separated, they are transferred from Homeland Security authorities to the Department of Health and Human Services, which runs large detention centers such as Southwest Key. Merkley says “the activities in these detention centers are being hidden from the American public.”
The Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement, which contracted the nonprofit organization Southwest Key to run the facility, issued a statement that said, in part: “The Department of Health and Human Services takes the legal mandate to care for these children seriously. No one who arrives unannounced at one of our shelters demanding access to the children in our care will be permitted, even those claiming to be US senators.”
Merkley had applied to see three immigration centers in the area — one run by the Catholic Church, which gave him permission to visit; a second run by the Department of Homeland Security, which also permitted a visit; and Southwest Key, which did not give him permission in advance.
“However, I felt [since] I’m in the area, I might as well go knock on the door and say, ‘Look, I'm a US senator and nothing should be hidden from policymakers. I want to see what's going on here. Can you give me a little tour?’” Merkley says. “I thought there was a 50/50 chance they'd go ahead and give me a tour. But, as it turned out, that was not the case.”
Despite not being allowed to enter Southwest Key, Merkley did report on what he saw at the other two centers.
“You go in and you see a series of cages that look like large dog kennels, with people jammed into them, with space blankets,” he relates. “They look exhausted. They look terrified. There are a number of folks who are emotionally upset. A number of folks in these large dog kennel type cages [are] holding babies."
“In an adjacent room is a huge warehouse,” he continues. “In this huge warehouse are very large cages which [hold] the children who have been separated from the parents. One of those very large cages held … around 50 young boys. The tallest was not much taller than my desk, so I would guess 4 or 5 years old; and then, because they were in line by height, that went up through, I gather, 16 or 17 years old. To realize that these children have just recently been separated from their parents [is] something that should be of concern for everyone."
The White House took issue with Merkley’s attempted visit to Southwest Key. Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley accused Merkley of “irresponsibly spreading blatant lies.”
“What I'm describing is what I saw,” Merkley counters. “We’re not blaming the people who work there. … It’s the administration that is accountable. The administration's tactic is [to] try to change the topic and pretend we’re blaming someone else. I'm blaming the president the United States. I'm blaming the attorney general. I'm blaming the head of Homeland Security for what’s happening at that facility.”
The Obama administration also housed thousands of migrant children in shelters, but the majority of these children were unaccompanied minors who had been sent north by their families to escape extreme violence in their home countries. In those cases, children were not purposely separated from their parents.
“There was not a strategy of inflicting harm on children,” Merkley points out. “There was a strategy of caring for children until they got to trial. The system did get overloaded and the Obama team worked very hard to expand the capability of the system to address that when there was a significant wave of unaccompanied minors. But that is not the issue I'm raising here. The issue I'm raising here is that the administration is deliberately inflicting trauma on children to influence their parents. That is new and that is wrong.”
The full HHS statement in response to Merkley’s visit reads:
"United States Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), along with five other individuals, attempted to enter an unaccompanied alien children’s (UAC) shelter unannounced and broadcast live via social media last night in Texas. Thankfully, for the safety, security and dignity of the children being cared for there, they were denied access. The Department of Health and Human Services takes the legal mandate to care for these children seriously. No one who arrives unannounced at one of our shelters demanding access to the children in our care will be permitted, even those claiming to be US Senators. Senator Merkley should respect the UAC program and engage in the appropriate processes, as many of his colleagues have done before him, to visit ORR facilities. 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."