"We were not allowed to speak to children": Sen. Jeff Merkley says Democrats were blocked at border

A group of congressmen were turned away as they attempted to investigate the death of a 7-year-old girl

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published December 21, 2018 5:38PM (EST)

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

A new report reveals that members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus were turned away by the Department of Homeland Security when they attempted to speak with Customs and Border Protection agents about the death of a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl in their custody.

The story, which was broken by BuzzFeed on Tuesday, described the situation as a frustrating one for the House members being told they couldn't speak with the agents in question.

According to a source with CHC, DHS’s refusal to allow the lawmakers to interview the agents came during a conference call Monday. The refusal frustrated lawmakers, and the CHC source said at one point Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Texas Democrat, warned that if the agents are not made available during the Tuesday inspection, they can expect to be called before Congress as soon as Democrats take control of the House in January.

BuzzFeed also reported that a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security defended turning away the members of Congress by claiming that there is already an investigation into the girl's death, that several top officials at Customs and Border Protection have been made available for interviews, that the agents involved in apprehending and detaining the little girl in question are protected as members of a union and that Homeland Security's inspector general is already investigating the death, so Congress does not need to do so.

The death of the Guatemalan asylum-seeker, Jakelin Caal Maquin, has stirred up outrage among Democrats even as Republicans like former Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah have argued that it should serve as a deterrent for potential undocumented immigrants.

For greater insight into how President Donald Trump's administration has blocked congressional oversight of America's immigrant detention facilities, Salon spoke with Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, a Democrat who was blocked from visiting a facility in Texas in June — and publicized it on Facebook Live so the whole world could see.

"The administration is trying to thwart congressional oversight and make it as difficult as possible," Merkley told Salon. He then recalled how he visited an immigrant detention facility with two other senators and two House members over the weekend and learned that, despite laws intended to prevent this, roughly 2,000 of the 2,700 children there had been detained for more than 20 days.

"We were not allowed to speak to children," Merkley explained. "So you had these rules that had been in the facility — it's either Department of Homeland Security or Health and Human Services — they are imposing two-week requirements, you have to seek a waiver, they don't want to do it except when they can fly in special minders to control everything you do while you're there. We are not able to exercise oversight if we can not get into a facility on brief notice and actually talk to the relevant people, be they staff or be they actual for example the children or adult prisoners."

He added, "They don't want people to know that they have this system of child prisons, that they're locking up children for far more than 20 days, that they're slow-walking their release even when they have sponsors who have gone through the full background check system because they want to keep them in prison rather than releasing them to homes and schools and parks, where they should be. This is all part of an effort by the administration on their policy from May to say to the world, 'Do not come to our borders if you're fleeing oppression because we will inflict trauma on you and your children.'"

When asked if he thought racism was a factor here, Merkley did not hold back in affirming that he suspected that to be the case.

"[President Trump] wants migrants from countries, as he puts it, like Norway, where people are — He didn't say where people are white, but that was the whole implication, and not from countries where people might have darker skin," Merkley said. "There is deep embedded racism in this administration, no doubt."

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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