As It Happens

Senator says children in immigration detention held in 'unacceptable' conditions

Since taking office, President Donald Trump has implemented a 'zero tolerance' approach to migrants and their children hoping to cross the border.

Trump administration's policy for illegal border crossings has led to hundreds of separated families

In this, file photo, Sen. Jeff Merkley speaks at a rally in Washington. Merkley, while trying to gain access to a federal facility housing immigrant children in Texas near the Mexico border and talk to a supervisor was turned away after police were summoned. (Manuel Balce Ceneta via Associated Press)

Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley said he was disturbed by conditions inside an immigration detention centre he visited in Texas. He said he saw children who had been separated from their parents kept in cells he described as 'cages.' 

The Democratic Senator tried to visit another facility last weekend but was turned away after authorities called the local police on him. 

The United Nations has criticized how the U.S. administration treats children detained after crossing the border. A UN Human Rights office spokesperson said in a statement, "The use of immigration detention and family separation as a deterrent runs counter to human rights standards and principles."

The White House disputed Sen. Merkley's assessment. "Senator Merkley is irresponsibly spreading blatant lies about routine immigration enforcement," an official said in a statement. 

The exact number of children being detained is not known. The New York Times reported that Trump administration's policy of "zero tolerance" for illegal border crossings has led to hundreds of children being removed from their parents care, after the parent is detained.

Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off. Here is part of their conversation.

Senator Merkley when you went to this border patrol processing centre in Texas, what did you see?

What I saw was an initial room, where people are brought in and then put in to cells or we can call them as I did earlier, in cages.

It's very crowded, people are in there and they're very distressed, some are crying and some are holding their children.They then go to a warehouse and in this warehouse are bigger cages.

What really strikes me there though, is that the children have been separated from their parents.

There was one large cage that had several dozen young boys.They were getting in line to grab food...Some of those boys, may have come as unaccompanied minors all by themselves. But, many of them...had been removed from their families because their families are pursuing asylum. 

In this file photo, a member of the U.S. National Guard checks on his colleague inside a Border Patrol Skybox near the Hidalgo International Bridge in Hidalgo, Texas. (Delcia Lopez via Associated Press)

You had tried to visit another centre in Texas early in the week. What did you want to see there and what happened?

Picture those children at the processing centre and then being shipped out to a different department.

They are placing the children in a variety of places but one of them is in a former Walmart. We don't know how many kids are in that warehouse. But it was suggested that it may be approximately a thousand children.

And the question is, many of these children have gone through great trauma abroad. Many have gone through trauma on their way here and many have gone through trauma because we tore them out of their parents' arms.

And so it's appropriate for members of congress to go and ask these questions and if they need more resources, to fight for those resources.

But they have a strategy, and they being the Office of Refugee Resettlement, to try to keep members of congress from seeing these locations


That is a good question.

I believe that it's because the controversy over this new policy of splitting up families and turning away children and the weighing in of practitioners across the country, who have said that this type of torment is absolutely destructive for children.

I think the goal of the administration is to keep members of congress from really exploring this impact on the children.

Jeff Sessions said, "we believe every person who enters the country illegally should be prosecuted. You can't be giving immunity to people who bring children with them recklessly...What do you say to Mr. Sessions?

Jeff Sessions absolutely needs to read international law on people seeking asylum.They do not arrive on our shores illegally. That is a basic tenet of international law and it is the basic tenet of our law.   

They can present themselves and say they have suffered enormous tragedy and ask for asylum. That doesn't mean they get asylum, but it does mean that they're not criminals.

This deliberate strategy that Sessions and Kelly, the Chief of Staff, put together to say if we inflict harm in the children, it will discourage families from coming to the United States.

No civilized nation does that. No religious framework in the world supports hurting children to sway and influence their parents. That's unacceptable.

President Trump is blaming the democrats. He says that separating families at the border is the fault of bad legislation passed by democrats and border security laws should be change but [democrats] can't get their act together. What do you say to him?

I would say, Mr. President, show me the line of law that says you have tear children away from families seeking asylum.

That line does not exist.

They know clearly that they are choosing to do this to influence the choice of parents. They've said as much, what Sessions said reflects that.

You don't harm children to influence parents and they are legal when they present themselves for asylum.

Written by Earvin Solitario with files from Associated Press. Interview with Sen. Jeff Merkley produced by Imogen Birchard. Q&A edited for length and clarity.