Merkley Returns to Border with Delegation of Senate Democrats

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Thirteen months after his first trip to McAllen, Texas pushed the issue of family separation to the top of the national debate, Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley returned to McAllen today with a delegation of 12 Senate Democrats.

Merkley helped lead the on-the-ground mission to investigate the Trump policies that have created overcrowding and suffering, as Senate Democrats responded to the latest Trump administration crisis at the border. Last week, Merkley led the introduction of the Stop Cruelty to Migrant Children Act, legislation co-sponsored by 40 Senate Democrats that would end the Trump administration’s cruelty at the border.

“No American wants innocent children to suffer—especially not on America’s watch, with America’s taxdollars,” said Merkley. “The Trump administration has pursued a deliberate strategy of inflicting trauma on children to deter people seeking asylum from coming to our borders. This is shameful and wrong, and demands that we stand up against it in outrage. It’s possible to create an immigration system that is fair and gives all families the opportunities to fulfill their potential and contribute to society. That’s why Senate Democrats are here today, and that’s why we will keep fighting to end cruelty to migrant children and treat everyone within our borders with decency and respect.”

On today’s trip, the delegation visited Border Patrol holding and processing centers along the border, as well as a Catholic respite center that is providing aid to asylum seekers. They also met with local NGOs who have been advocating for safer conditions and providing assistance and legal aid to families fleeing persecution.

In recent weeks, Americans have been horrified by reports and photos of the unimaginable conditions Trump’s border policies have created for vulnerable families, particularly children, who have come to the border fleeing persecution abroad. In many cases, children were left with dirty clothes, without adequate meals, and even without soap and toothbrushes. At one facility in Clint, Texas, children were so neglected that the older child detainees were instructed to look after other children as young as toddlers, because there were no dedicated staff to care for them. Many children and families have been sleeping in concrete holding cells with no beds and only Mylar blankets to stay warm, with the lights left on all night, and sometimes without even enough room to lie down.

The Stop Cruelty to Migrant Children Act would create clear, non-negotiable standards for the treatment of children in America’s care, including:

  • Ending family separations except when authorized by a state court or child welfare agency, or when Customs and Border Protection and an independent child welfare specialist agree that a child is a trafficking victim, is not the child of an accompanying adult, or is in danger of abuse or neglect;
  • Setting minimum health and safety standards for children and families in Border Patrol Stations.
    • The bill requires access to hygiene products including toothbrushes, diapers, soap and showers, regular nutritious meals, and a prompt medical assessment by trained medical providers.
    • Requiring children receive three meals a day that meet USDA nutrition standards.
    • Ending for-profit contractors from operating new Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) standard shelters or influx facilities.
      • The bill ensures that temporary influx facilities are state-licensed, meet Flores standards, and are not used to house children indefinitely.
      • Expanding alternatives to detention and the successful Family Case Management Program.
      • Removing roadblocks to placing unaccompanied children with sponsors by lowering case manager caseloads, mandating lower staffing ratios, and ending the information sharing agreement between ORR and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
        • These provisions would ensure that children are moved out of detention centers and into community-based settings—usually, sponsored by family members—as soon as possible.
        • Ensuring unaccompanied children have access to legal counsel and continue to be placed in a non-adversarial setting for their initial asylum case review.

Additionally, the legislation would provide resources to non-profit centers that are helping to provide humanitarian assistance, and improve public oversight of the conditions children are being held in by allowing members of Congress and their staff, along with credentialed press (without cameras), to visit any facility with 24 hours notice.

In June 2018, Merkley set off a national firestorm when he went to the border to personally investigate the administration’s child separation policy and was turned away from a children’s detention center in Brownsville, Texas. Merkley pressured the Trump administration to formally end their cruel policy of separating children from their parents, but the administration has been determined to keep pursuing policies that inflict trauma on children and families fleeing persecution abroad—seen most recently in the news reports of children being detained in squalid conditions near the border and the ‘metering’ policies that have blockaded families, like Valeria and Oscar Martinez Ramirez, from legally applying for asylum at American ports of entry.