In this Nov. 28, 2017, file photo, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., 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 a

(Photo credit: AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

U.S. Senator Refused Entry To Facility Holding Migrants' Kids

June 04, 2018 - 3:29 pm
Categories: 

BROWNSVILLE, TX (AP) - A United States Senator tried to enter a federal facility in Texas where immigrant children are being held, but police were summoned and he was told to leave.

Sen. Jeff Merkley's attempt late Sunday to enter the facility, and his request to speak to a manager, comes amid a national debate over the practice of separating families caught crossing the border illegally. A spokeswoman for the federal agency that is caring for the children accused the senator of grandstanding.

The children are being held in Brownsville, a city along the Mexican border, said Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon who live-streamed his arrival there on Facebook. He said no member of Congress has visited the facility, and that because U.S. citizens were financing it, he and the press should be able to see what conditions are like inside. The facility, run by a contractor, is in a former Wal-Mart with blacked-out windows.

Watch the Facebook Live, here...

"Every American citizen has a stake in how these children are being treated and how this policy is being enacted," Merkley said. He said a new policy under President Donald Trump is "ripping away" children from immigrant families who have entered the country illegally or are seeking asylum here.

A supervisor, who finally emerged from the building, told Merkley he was not allowed to make any statements. He gave the senator a phone number of the public affairs office in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Washington.

Meanwhile, Brownsville police had shown up. One asked Merkley for his name and birth date. Merkley provided the information, and then tried to explain to the officer why he had come to the facility.

"The children who were previously kept with their families, under a new policy just implemented by the attorney general, are being separated from their families and warehoused here," Merkley told the police officer. "And the attorney general's team, and the Office of Refugee Resettlement, they don't want anyone to know about what's going on behind these doors."

Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently announced a new "zero-tolerance policy" in which it will press criminal charges against all people crossing the border illegally, even if they have few or no previous offenses. More children are expected to be separated from their parents as a result.

It was out of concerns for "the safety, security and dignity of the children" that the senator was barred entry into the Brownsville facility, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families said in an email.

"No one who arrives unannounced at one of our shelters demanding access to the children in our care will be permitted, even those claiming to be U.S. Senators," said the statement from Victoria Palmer.

She said there's a "process" to enter such a facility he should follow "to make headway on this important issue, rather than just headlines."

By midday Monday, Merkley's video had over 1 million views on Facebook. The numerous comments posted alongside the video showed what a hot-button topic illegal immigration, and how to handle it, has become.

The Department of Health and Human Services says it operates over 100 shelters in some 17 states, and that children spend an average of 51 days in them.