Merkley, Senate Democrats Introduce Legislation to Stop Cruel and Neglectful Treatment of Children at Border

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley, joined by Senate Democratic Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-NY), Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA), Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Ranking Member Dick Durbin (D-IL), and Senators Mazie Hirono (D-HI) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ), today introduced the Stop Cruelty to Migrant Children Act. This new legislation, supported by more than three dozen Senators, would put an end to the Trump administration’s cruel and neglectful treatment of children at the U.S.-Mexico border and reform how children fleeing persecution are treated between the moment at which they arrive at our borders to claim asylum and the ultimate resolution of their asylum case.

“All of the recent reports of abuse and neglect of children by this administration are horrifying the American people, but are the predictable byproduct of the racism and discrimination that drive the policies of this president and his appointees,” said Merkley. “No moral or religious tradition in the world condones hurting children to send a political message—but that is exactly what the Trump administration has done. We need a strong response to stop the cruelty at the border and ensure that our nation treats these vulnerable children as we should, with respect, dignity, and compassion.”

“Democrats continue to propose real solutions to the same immigration problems the president complains about,” said Schumer. “We have legislation ready to go that would strengthen our asylum system, allowing immigrants to apply in their home countries; would hire more judges, to reduce the backlog of cases; and provide the security assistance Central American countries need to crack down on the drug cartels and gangs that send so many of their citizens fleeing. This new legislation will establish clear mandatory guardrails for the appropriate and humane treatment of children and families – it’s a necessary step to restore America’s moral credibility and an example of how we can deal with our immigration issues with dignity and common sense and we will fight to make it a reality.”

“As a former teacher, a mother, and as a grandmother I am appalled by the heartbreaking reports coming from our southern border, and firmly believe we cannot allow this administration to continue to harm children and run roughshod over our shared values,” Murray said. “This legislation is just a step toward mitigating the harm done to these kids and holding those responsible accountable, but it’s a critical one we must take immediately before the kids in our care are even further hurt and traumatized. For the sake of the children, I urge all of our colleagues to join us in this effort to protect the kids in our care, because we will not stop fighting until this is made right.”

“On President Trump’s watch, we have an unprecedented humanitarian crisis at our southern border, with overcrowded and inhumane conditions at detention centers at the border,” said Durbin. “Immigration may be a complex issue, but how we treat children and families should not be an issue where we are divided.  The Stop Cruelty to Migrant Children Act would ensure that migrant children and families are treated humanely when they are in our government’s custody.” 

“Donald Trump’s cruel and inhumane immigration policies cause great harm to migrant children and families at our southern border,” said Hirono. “This bill would help ensure that the government treats children humanely, instead of traumatizing them; connects children with their families, instead of separating them from their parents; and provides lawyers so that toddlers are not forced to represent themselves alone in immigration court. I will continue to fight against this administration’s inhumane immigration policies and urge my colleagues to join in supporting this commonsense legislation.”

“As the Administration continues to implement their anti-immigrant agenda by incarcerating asylum-seeking families, shutting ports of entry, forcing children to stay in filthy conditions as a way to deter immigrants from coming to our country, it’s our responsibility to demand accountability, protect these individuals and ensure  government funds are not used to further traumatize or harm asylum seekers,” said Menendez. “This critical legislation will first and foremost protect children and families at the border, provide real solutions to the growing humanitarian crisis including alternatives to detention, stopping family separation and ensuring migrants are treated humanely and afforded the due process they deserve.”

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.

A section-by-section breakdown of the Stop Cruelty to Migrant Children Act is available here and a one-pager is available here. In addition to Merkley, Schumer, Murray, Feinstein, Durbin, Hirono, and Menendez, the legislation is supported by Senators Chris Coons (D-DE), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Jack Reed (D-RI), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Mark Warner (D-VA), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Kamala D. Harris (D-CA), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Tina Smith (D-MN), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Bob Casey (D-PA), Angus King (I-ME), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), and Sherrod Brown (D-OH).

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 from legally applying for asylum at American ports of entry. And earlier this week, NBC News reported that horrific conditions, abuse, and retaliation aimed at children at the border may be even more widespread than previously known.