Members Of Oregon Delegation Tour Portland Shelters For Unaccompanied Migrants

Four Democratic members of Oregon’s congressional delegation spent their Sunday morning on a tour of two Portland-based facilities that house young migrants who traveled to the United States without a parent or legal guardian.

For U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, it was the latest in a string of tours of shelters for migrant youth. Merkley was one of a dozen Senate Democrats who visited a facility in McAllen, Texas earlier this month, where lawmakers reported that children were not being provided toothbrushes and the water was “barely drinkable.”

The Oregon politicians said the shelters they toured Sunday, run by Morrison Child & Family Services, were a far cry from the cold, cramped detention centers that have generated a national outcry over the past year. 

“This is by far the best facility in every possible way – in hygiene, in nutrition, in just the thoughtfulness with which they’re run,” Merkley said. “They’re being run about as well as they could be.”

For the last 10 years, Morrison Child & Family Services has been working with the Office of Refugee Resettlement to offer shelter and support services for migrant children between the ages of 13 and 17. A spokesperson for Merkley said members of the Oregon delegation first decided they wanted to tour the facility last year after they heard that some children who had been removed from their parents under the Trump Administration’s family separation policy were being housed at the Portland shelters.

Drew Henrie-McWilliams, Morrison’s CEO, said he could not comment on whether there were still children within their shelters who had been separated from their parents. But he stressed that the organization is obligated to serve whomever is sent by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which funds their shelter programs.

The federal resettlement agency nixed the Oregon delegation’s original request to tour Morrison. Henrie-McWilliams said he invited the politicians again this year, so they could see that overstuffed shelters at the border were “not the norm.”

Reps. Peter Defazio, Suzanne Bonamici, and Earl Blumenauer joined Merkley for Sunday’s tour of Morrison. Sen. Ron Wyden was conducting a separate inspection of migrant facilities in El Paso, Texas and Otero County, New Mexico.

Henrie-McWilliams said he asked the politicians to see the Portland facility for themselves because “they need to see that we do run a good program, that we do have the tools and services to help these kids, and we get them to family really quickly and effectively.”

Children stay, on average, 37 days in the short-term shelter and two months in the “Staff Secure Care,” a specialized shelter for children with behavioral issues, according to Henrie-McWilliams. Morrison also provides a group home for children who don’t have any sponsors in the United States.

The Oregon delegation said they were encouraged by the organization’s empathetic staff, accessible health care and the ability for children in the group home to attend public school.

Defazio recounted his interaction with a 16-year-old boy from Guatemala, who told the delegation through a translator that he “was treated like dirt at the border” but now “felt he had a future.”

“When this child first surrendered himself at the border, (he was) told he was an enemy. He said he regretted leaving home,” Defazio recounted. “But he said now that he’s at the Morrison facility, … he wants to be a mechanic and go to college or vocational school.”

Merkley said he was surprised at the freedom granted to children in the group home. They are allowed to come and go from the facility, though they must sign in and out and carry a cellphone.

Blumenauer told OPB he was “still processing the fact.”

“I’m thinking of a 14-year-old in my family who may not speak English going out in the street in downtown Portland,” he said. “That just gave me pause.”

Henrie-McWilliams stressed that only kids proficient in English would leave the facility without staff. He said the group home functions “like any foster home,” with staff constantly monitoring comings and goings.