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Trump's treatment of migrant children is wrong

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Donald Lambro

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Sunday, June 10, 2018

When Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon showed up at a government detention center for migrant children in Brownsville, Texas, the people in charge of the place called the police and asked him to leave.

The Democratic lawmaker had identified himself and asked for a tour of the facility in a shuttered Walmart at a strip mall near the Mexican border to see for himself how the Trump administration was caring for these terrified kids who had been torn from their parents.

After an officer filled out a report, Merkley left. But the brief episode "underscored a lack of transparency from President Trump's administration about its intensifying efforts to break up undocumented families caught crossing the border, the centerpiece of a 'zero tolerance' policy announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions last month to deter illegal immigration," writes The Washington Post's James Hohmann.

Merkley certainly had plenty of reasons why he had a responsibility to examine how the government was treating these children, or, more to the point, mistreating them.

After all, he sits on three major committees that deal with the budget, appropriations and foreign relations, and a number of relevant subcommittees -- one of which deals with the nation's "health and human services."

And Merkley takes these responsibilities very seriously, especially when it comes to the mistreatment of children.

"The administration calls this 'zero tolerance.' ... It is really a 'zero humanity' policy," he told Hohmann in a telephone interview Monday. "It does damage to the children, to the parents and to the soul of America."

The senator told Hohmann that he had tried to go through "proper channels to arrange a site visit but was rebuffed."

Among other things, he wanted to know just how many kids were being held in the abandoned Walmart, but said he was unable to get a "straight answer."

He could have put out a press release and aired his complaints. But Merkley told Hohmann he thinks that the president's policy is "a moral stain on America" and he was "determined not to let it slip from public consciousness."

So he flew down there to get a firsthand look, and a lapel microphone captured the entire Q and A of what took place. A Senate staffer livestreamed the conversations on Facebook along with a video.

If you think taking little children away from their parents is a cruel and inhuman way to punish immigrants who come here seeking asylum, so does Merkley.

"I think it's unacceptable that a member of Congress is not being admitted to see what's happening to children whose families are applying for asylum," he told Hohmann.

"America has never done this before. ... The intention is to hurt children, cause the children trauma and discourage people from seeking asylum in the United States of America," Merkley said.

The White House press office dismissed Merkley's complaints as "grandstanding," but says nothing about what these children must be going through as they wonder if they will ever see their parents again.

Since minors are not allowed in jails or other facilities where illegal migrants are detained, they are sent to other facilities run by the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement.

The Brownsville detention facility is run by Southwest Key Programs, a nonprofit that operates 26 other such places across Southern California, Texas and Arizona.

The policy of separating children and parents must stop. If families are apprehended illegally crossing the border, facilities must be provided to house them while their cases are heard.

In too many cases, "Once a child has entered the shelter system, there is no firm process to determine whether they have been separated from someone who was legitimately their parent, or for reuniting parents and children who had been mistakenly separated," a border patrol official told The New York Times.

One group that has been working to reform the system is the Migrant Rights and Justice program at the Women's Refugee Commission, an advocacy group that monitors immigration detention centers.

"The idea of punishing parents who are trying to save their children's lives, and punishing children for being brought to safety by their parents by separating them, is fundamentally cruel and un-American," Michelle Brane, the program's director, told the Times.

Amen to that.

Donald Lambro has been covering Washington politics for more than 50 years as a reporter, editor and commentator.

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