Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley was turned away and had police called on him for trying to visit an immigration detention center for undocumented children in Brownsville, TX, on Sunday evening, raising questions about how these unaccompanied minors are being treated while held in U.S. custody.
In video of the incident, which was shared on the senator’s Facebook page, Merkley explained that he made the trip to the Brownsville center—a repurposed Walmart with blacked out windows and run by Southwest Key Programs, a private, nonprofit organization that manages 27 different immigration facilities for children across Arizona, Texas, and California—after he was unsuccessful in trying to schedule a visit.
“I think it’s unacceptable that a member of Congress is not being admitted to see what is happening to children whose families are applying for asylum,” Merkley explained on camera. “I decided to come out here, go up to the door and ask to be let in.”
After waiting at the front door of the facility, Merkley is confronted by both police and the center’s supervisor, who claimed that he is not allowed to comment on the center’s activities. The senator was eventually asked to leave the premises.
On Twitter, Merkley demanded answers about his treatment and, more importantly, the unseen treatment of the children being housed at the center.
I have reached out to Southwest Key Programs for comment on the senator’s visit, and will update this story if they respond. In an email to Splinter, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families justified their decision to turn Merkley away, saying they were keeping the children safe from a man “claiming” to be a U.S. senator.
“United States Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), along with five other individuals, attempted to enter an unaccompanied alien children’s (UAC) shelter unannounced and broadcast live via social media last night in Texas,” the spokesperson said. “Thankfully for the safety, security and dignity of the children being cared for there, they were denied access.” (You can read their full statement below.)
Yes, thank goodness children locked in a repurposed Walmart weren’t allowed to see a sitting United States Senator concerned for their wellbeing. Imagine how undignified that would have been!
Merkley’s experience comes as the Trump administration has actively ramped up its effort to forcibly separate immigrant children from their parents for crossing the border into the United States. Last week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Thomas Acting Director Thomas Homan defended the practice of ripping kids away from their mothers and fathers, but admitted it was “sad.”
Update, 5:14 PM: A Health and Human Services spokesperson provided the following statement regarding Senator Merkley’s visit:
United States Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), along with five other individuals, attempted to enter an unaccompanied alien children’s (UAC) shelter unannounced and broadcast live via social media last night in Texas. Thankfully for the safety, security and dignity of the children being cared for there, they were denied access. The Department of Health and Human Services takes the legal mandate to care for these children seriously. 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. Senator Merkley should respect the UAC program and engage in the appropriate processes, as many of his colleagues have done before him, to visit ORR facilities. We would welcome him to engage in that process so that he may visit the facility to make headway on this important issue, rather than just headlines.