Democratic Senator barred from immigrant detention by cops slams Trump's "morally bankrupt" policies

Jeff Merkley opens up to Salon about his experience of being turned away from a facility housing immigrant children

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published June 4, 2018 11:59AM (EDT)

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

A viral Facebook Live video shows Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., facing police on Sunday when he tried to visit a detention center for immigrant children who had been forcibly separated from their parents. In the video, Merkley can be seen visiting a former Walmart building in Brownsville, Texas which had been converted into a building for holding the children of immigrant families that had fled to the United States. The facility is one of 27 that are run by Southwest Key Programs, a nonprofit that runs shelters for unaccompanied immigrant children in Arizona, California and Texas. Merkley claimed that he attempted to visit the Brownsville facility by making arrangements through the proper channels but was unable to do so and even found himself unable to get a direct answer about how many children were being held at the Brownsville facility. This is what prompted him to engage in a public confrontation, resulting in a police officer escorting him off of the property.

Merkley opened up to Salon about his experience on Sunday night, as well as about the Trump administration's policy of splitting up families in order to dissuade undocumented immigrants from entering the country.

"The policy's premise is that hurting children will be useful in deterring families from seeking asylum in the United States. Damaging children in an effort to reduce families seeking asylum is absolutely immoral. It is a horrendous, horrendous policy," Merkley told Salon. "We have always treated families seeking asylum — who by definition are families who have gone through horrific circumstances overseas — with graciousness. We are a nation of immigrants coming from all corners of the world and many of our ancestors came here escaping persecution. So now trying to dissuade people from coming to the United States by hurting their children is morally bankrupt and out of sync with the soul of America."

The mechanics of the Trump administration's policy was best summed up by The Washington Post:

Trump’s policy may split up an untold number of families. Minors are not allowed in criminal jails, where adults are held when they’re charged with crimes related to crossing the border. Children are sent to separate facilities, which are overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement. This happens even if their folks present themselves at official ports of entry and declare that they are seeking asylum.

Merkley also discussed with Salon a theme that he mentioned during his viral video — namely, that the Trump administration doesn't want people seeing the children inside of the facility because the heart-wrenching images would make for terrible publicity.

"I think this is part of a strategy to prevent the public and our decision-makers from seeing what’s really going on. These doors are closed right now, which I think is symbolic of what the administration is doing," Merkley said in the video.

Merkley echoed these thoughts when speaking with Salon.

"It's very clear that the administration is trying to keep the images under wraps of what is involved in this policy. They're trying to keep the impact secret and hidden," Merkley told Salon. "I found it very interesting to see the stories over the weekend that the administration considered doing this when Trump came into office and repeatedly reached the conclusion that to injure children in pursuit of deterring families seeking asylum was simply wrong and wouldn't be accepted. Their first judgment was right, that it is wrong and the public is not going to like it, but the administration has just gone way off track here and has decided to inflict this cruel damage to young people and really not care about the result."

Merkley's complaint was echoed by Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who posted a tweet on Monday that described his own experience being thwarted from trying to tour one of the facilities where immigrant children are held.

"This is outrageous. Sec. Nielsen owes us answers. My team was also barred from touring a migrant processing facility where families are being separated. When the elected representatives of the people can't observe how our government is operating, we're in an upside down world," Menendez wrote on Twitter.

Merkley also emphasized to Salon that, regardless of what one's position may be on immigration issues, it is morally incumbent on the American people to have compassion for the children being traumatized by the Trump administration's policies.

"I think it's important to imagine that you've gone through circumstances where, for example, your family was attacked and came near death because they were standing up to a drug cartel or something like that overseas," Merkley told Salon. "And your family has gone through great stress, enormous stress, and then the children are ripped out of their parents' arms to be sent who knows where. This is trauma on top of trauma, and I can understand the administration wanting to keep this secret and that tells you they know what they're doing is wrong."

The issue of how the Trump administration has dealt with the fate of immigrant children has been plaguing the Republican's presidency. Last week it was revealed that the fate of nearly 1,475 migrant children who had been found at the border unaccompanied by adults remains unknown. The Trump administration has also warred with both Democrats and moderate Republicans over the fate of DACA recipients — undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children and who were shielded from deportation by President Barack Obama. Trump has been perceived as siding with the hardliners on this issue, and it was his decision to revoke the DACA protections and challenge Congress to come up with an alternative solution.

Trump made opposition to immigrant one of the cornerstones of his 2016 presidential campaign, and his hostility toward immigration has been evident throughout his presidency.

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By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Bob Menendez Donald Trump Ice Immigration Jeff Merkley Migrants Refugees Robert Menendez