WASHINGTON — Lawmakers who had been trying to gain access to a holding center for undocumented immigrant children were given a tour Sunday starting with a Customs and Border Protection processing center in McAllen, Texas, as DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen declared in a rare tweetstorm that the kids aren’t being separated from parents.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), calling the McAllen facility “the dog kennel,” said he “witnessed loads of kids massed together in large pens of chain-linked fence separated from their moms and dads.”
He and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) then went to the McAllen–Hidalgo–Reynosa International Bridge, where agents have reportedly refused entry to families showing up with asylum requests citing a lack of detention space, leaving migrants camping out on the border bridge with scant food and water.
The senators visited a detention facility for children 10 years and up in Brownsville. “I’m reflecting on how Sessions cited the Bible as justification for tearing children from their parents,” Van Hollen tweeted, citing the attorney general’s comments last week. “I dare Sessions to look these children in the eye and tell them that the Bible demands this cruelty.”
The Maryland senator said officials wouldn’t let the lawmakers talk to the children — he saw about 100 in the facility — and asked that he stop filming outside.
The lawmakers then visited the Port Isabel Detention Center, where Van Hollen said they “heard gut-wrenching testimony from 10 women who fled extreme violence in Honduras only to have their children taken away from them — definitely one of the most emotional moments of the trip.”
Also touring facilities Sunday were Reps. Filemon Vela (D-Texas), Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), Peter Welch (D-Vt.), David Cicilline (D-R.I.), and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.).
“When you have a mother tell you directly that she’s in fear that she will never see her child again, and when the United Nations Human Rights Commission indicate to the Trump administration that you are violating human rights, then you know that what we are saying today is President Trump, cease and desist,” Jackson Lee said.
Welch said he “saw chain link cages full of unaccompanied children; they sat on metal benches and stared straight ahead silently.”
“I met a woman named Reina who was being extorted in Guatemala. She traveled 14 days with her 13 year old daughter and turned herself in at the border for asylum,” Welch tweeted. “She hasn’t seen her daughter in two days and didn’t know where she was. No one had told her that her daughter had been taken to a shelter.”
“I met a woman named Andrea who fled Guatemala when she was 8 months pregnant. She had defaulted on a loan, and an assassin was planning to stake out her delivery and kill her when she left the hospital. She gave birth on the journey from Guatemala to the border. But when she and her newborn daughter arrived, they were denied entry,” he added.
DHS reported Friday that 1,995 minors traveling with 1,940 adults who said they were the children’s guardians have been separated under the administration’s zero-tolerance deterrence policy between April 19 through May 31 this year. More than 100 of those kids are under 4 years old.
White House adviser Stephen Miller, who pushed for the policy, told the New York Times that “no nation can have the policy that whole classes of people are immune from immigration law or enforcement.”
“It was a simple decision by the administration to have a zero tolerance policy for illegal entry, period,” Miller said. “The message is that no one is exempt from immigration law.”
The DHS secretary tweeted Sunday, “This misreporting by Members, press & advocacy groups must stop. It is irresponsible and unproductive. As I have said many times before, if you are seeking asylum for your family, there is no reason to break the law and illegally cross between ports of entry.”
“You are not breaking the law by seeking asylum at a port of entry. We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period. For those seeking asylum at ports of entry, we have continued the policy from previous Administrations and will only separate if the child is in danger, there is no custodial relationship between ‘family’ members, or if the adult has broken a law,” Nielsen continued. “DHS takes very seriously its duty to protect minors in our temporary custody from gangs, traffickers, criminals and abuse.”
Welch responded to Nielsen’s tweet denying family separation: “You can’t be serious. I just arrived with @SenJeffMerkley at Casa Padre in Brownsville. 1500 boys here. Earlier we saw children in chain link cages. Alone. Not a parent in sight. Shameful.”
“How do we know you are lying Sec Nielsen? Because Stephen Miller pushed for the policy change & AG Sessions gleefully announced it,” tweeted Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.). “Also, 2000 kids didn’t voluntarily decide to leave their parents. You forced the separation. Get it?”
Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani told CBS on Sunday that “the administration is doing something not terribly dissimilar to what Bush and what Obama were forced to do, because Congress wouldn’t act.”
“Now, maybe this administration is doing it more thoroughly,” Giuliani said. “I don’t like to see, and I know President Trump doesn’t like to see, children taken away from their parents. I also don’t like to see America victimized by a lot of people who are doing it for pure manipulation to get bad people here.”