The Trump administration’s policy that has led to the separation of undocumented children from their parents at the southern border is “morally bankrupt,” according to Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who traveled to Texas over the weekend in an attempt to visit immigrant processing centers there.
“I wanted to go find out: is this true? What does this look like on the ground? Why does the administration justify doing harm to children in this fashion?” he told KATU Wednesday.
Administration officials say existing laws leave them no other choice when parents arrive at the border with their children but to separate them into different facilities, and they have suggested the policy serves as a deterrent to make traveling to the U.S. without documentation less attractive for families.
Merkley was particularly concerned that families seeking asylum would be subject to this treatment.
“I thought, this can’t possibly be true that those who have suffered egregious trauma abroad and seek to present their case for asylum in the U.S. would be treated like criminals and their children would be torn out of their arms,” he said.
Merkley posted video on social media of officials refusing to allow him entry into a Department of Health and Human Services facility where children who had been separated from their parents were held. He said Wednesday it was “unacceptable” for members of Congress to be denied access to such a location.
He was able to tour a Department of Homeland Security building where families are processed and separated, but the HHS facility told him he would need to submit a request two weeks in advance to receive a tour.
“They have a strategy of saying they need at least two weeks notice and they can’t guarantee it’ll be approved,” he said. “With congressional schedules, that’s simply a strategy to prevent members of Congress from getting inside those doors.”
He plans to introduce legislation that would require such facilities to grant tours to lawmakers with one day notice.
The White House has dismissed Merkley’s border visit as a stunt and attempted to blame him for crimes committed by undocumented immigrants in Oregon.
“Senator Merkley is irresponsibly spreading blatant lies about routine immigration enforcement while smearing hard-working, dedicated law enforcement officials at ICE and CBP,” administration spokesperson Hogan Gidley said in a statement Monday.
Gidley then claimed Merkley’s immigration policies “endanger children, empower human smugglers and drug cartels, and allow violent criminal aliens to flood into American communities.”
Merkley rejected that criticism Wednesday, saying everyone supports secure borders.
“The White House is absolutely incapable of justifying its current policy,” he said, “so it’s just going on the attack, trying to smear people who are pointing out the impact of what they’re doing to children.”
Merkley accused the White House of trying to divert attention and avoid responsibility for the consequences of its policies.
“They just absolutely are on the wrong track,” he said. “It’s morally bankrupt. It's something no civilized nation does, no religious tradition says you can inflict harm on children to influence parents."
Although President Trump has repeatedly blamed Democrats for the separation of families on Twitter, Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended the policy in a radio interview this week.
“If people don’t want to be separated from their children, they should not bring them with them,” he told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. “We’ve got to get this message out. You’re not given immunity.”