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Senator Tries to Enter Former Walmart Used to Hold Children of Detained Migrants

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) arrives in the Capitol for the Senate Democrats' policy lunch on May 15, 2018. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley (D) tried to get inside a detention center in Brownsville, Texas, over the weekend where children taken from parents who crossed illegally at the border are being held, and said police were called on him when he tried to speak with a supervisor.

The former Walmart is being run by Austin-based nonprofit Southwest Key Programs on behalf of the Department of Health and Human Service’s Unaccompanied Children’s Services Program.

“If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions told the Gatlinburg Law Enforcement Training Conference in Tennessee on May 8. “If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”

Merkley told CNN this morning that he wanted to tour the facility where minors are “being treated in an enormously cruel fashion, a fashion that rips children out of the arms of their parents, sends them off to places unknown while the parents are locked up.”

An estimated 1,000 children are being held inside the Brownsville building, the senator said.

“The federal government, President Trump and team, Attorney General Sessions, Homeland Security, they do not want members of Congress or the public to know what’s going on,” he said.

Merkley said his office called in advance and was told “it’s the policy not to admit anyone into these centers and we would not be allowed to enter it.”

“And I conveyed, or my team conveyed, that I was going down to visit the border and see what was going on and I would try to come by and visit and hope that they rethought their position. But, obviously, they didn’t,” he added.

The senator said that on Sunday morning he saw at the McAllen Border Station processing center children detained in “big cages made out of fencing and then wire and nets stretched across the top of them so people can’t climb out of them.”

“Every time I probed yesterday on the circumstances, the response was just basically a generic ‘this is what’s required for security, this is what’s required for control.’ And in a lot of these areas that I saw yesterday morning at the processing center, it’s just a concrete floor and people are being given these space blankets to sleep on,” he said.

He called for congressional hearings “about what’s going on with our treatment of these children being torn away from their families.”

“There’s absolutely no reason they shouldn’t be left with their family while the family is awaiting adjudication on their asylum request,” Merkley said. “This is just as an effort to be cruel to children, damaging to children as a so-called deterrent to keep people from seeking asylum.”