This past weekend, families gathered en masse to celebrate Father's Day. It should come as no small irony to contrast those happy Father's Day scenes with the hundreds of fathers and mothers, detained on criminal charges, separated from their children, for the crime of crossing the U.S. border illegally.
Whatever your personal position on the direction of U.S. immigration policy, one thing appears certain: separating children from their parents, and keeping them separated indefinitely, is barbaric, and represents a poor moral turn in our nation that should give each of us pause. The United States' history of separating slave children from their parents and detaining ethnic groups in internment camps and boarding schools are dark periods in our history that should be behind us. And yet, the new zero tolerance policy on immigration enacted by the Trump administration in April lays criminal charges on adults who attempt to cross the U.S. border illegally—and sends their children to "processing centers" while their parents await their court dates.
As of June 16, here in Oregon, 123 "immigrant civil detainees" awaited trial at the Sheridan Federal Corrections Institution in Sheridan, under an agreement between Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and the Bureau of Prisons.
While many of us were spending time with family over the weekend, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D, OR-3) and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D, OR-1), were visiting that facility. As reported by Merkley's office, detainees told the delegation that they're held inside for as much as 23 hours a day, with three men to a cell due to tight resources. The delegation also reported that "incompatibility between BOP and ICE telephone systems is preventing ICE detainees at the BOP facility from accessing legal services." Fathers in the facility reported being separated from their children without any information about where their children are or how they're doing.
Following Saturday's visit, Merkley spent Father's Day at the Texas border, and at a children's detention center in Brownsville, a site he was previously barred from visiting. When he attempted to visit that facility June 3, the private firm that runs the Brownsville facility called the police.
Since the initial media reports began, Merkley has been among the most vocal opponents to this new immigration policy—to the point that The White House released a statement, saying Merkley's "own policies endanger children, empower human smugglers and drug cartels, and allow violent criminal aliens to flood into American communities," reported The Washington Post.
Gaslighting like this is nothing new for the current administration, but we should not let ourselves get complacent by tactics to deflect attention from the children at risk by pointing out other headlines. The act of separating children from their parents at the borders is something that has been considered atrocious by past presidents on both sides of the aisle—and for good reason. This is a Rubicon we should not have crossed.
This past weekend, while we were barbecuing, Merkley persisted in obtaining access to the center for youth, where he told the Source Weekly that he witnessed kids sorted into 30 by 30-foot cages.
"Lady Liberty has put down that torch and picked up handcuffs," Merkley told the Source Weekly Tuesday. "That is not America, and this is not acceptable."
Between June 3 and now, he and others have raised the issue to one of national concern—one that Merkley believes should be corrected by the Trump administration, instead of legislative action. "We're very concerned about getting caught in the legislative quicksand," he said. "This is something, first and foremost, that was created by policy and should be ended by policy."
Wondering where Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR2) stands on the issue? He released this statement Tuesday: "Complications from court decisions tracing back through six presidential administrations have led to the heartbreaking situation we have watched unfold recently. This week, the House will consider legislation that takes steps toward improving border security and making needed changes to our immigration policies, including ensuring that children are not separated from parents detained for entering our country illegally."
We commend Merkley and the rest of the Oregon delegation taking steps to visit detainees. In a state without border crossings, Merkley and others are leading on this issue, and are being persistent in the face of scrutiny from the highest office in the land.