Originally published by VOX
As public outrage over the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant families apprehended at the US-Mexico border continues to simmer, Democrats are beginning to go on the offensive, in Washington and on social media.
Over the weekend, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) traveled to Texas to see detention centers where undocumented children are being held by border authorities. His trip to a Brownsville facility that refused him entry went viral, and brought renewed attention to the plight of the immigrant children in federal custody. In a call with reporters Wednesday, he blasted the Trump administration’s immigration policy as “morally bankrupt ... wrong on every level.”
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Democratic Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard of California has renewed a push for two bills that would help reunify parents and children who have been separated at the border.
The Democratic push on the issue comes in the wake of the Trump administration’s May 7 announcement that it would start separating all families apprehended at the border who are trying to cross into the United States without documentation. A recent story about 1,500 “missing” children that went viral over Memorial Day weekend — though it appears few of those immigrant children actually went missing, according to immigration advocates — further stoked public concern over the fate of families seeking asylum in the US.
President Trump has tried to steer the narrative, seemingly blaming Democrats for his administration’s policy of family separation.
With more families coming to the border, this issue is not likely to go away soon.
Merkley says young asylum seekers are being kept in “cages”
On a press call this week, Merkley relayed what he saw in Texas detention centers, including a processing center in McAllen, Texas, to which he was granted entry. He said the conditions were “seared” into his mind, and described people in “dog kennel-style cages, people crowded in with nothing but a space blanket.”
Merkley, who was rejected from one location, described one “cage” that contained a group of boys, the youngest of whom he estimated was around 4 years old, all the way up to teenagers.
“There was one holding a group of boys [who] were lining up to eat,” the senator said. “The smallest would barely come up to my belt buckle. This is not a zero-tolerance policy — this is a zero-humanity policy.”
Merkley is trying to keep media attention on a slow-rolling crisis of US immigration policy toward unaccompanied minors. Though the surge of asylum seekers from Central American countries like Venezuela, Honduras, and El Salvador started in 2014, the Trump administration’s response has sparked fury over how children and teens are treated. A recent story about 1,500 “missing” children went viral over Memorial Day weekend, though immigration advocates say those children are likely safely placed with family members who might be undocumented, muddling the issue further.
The White House, meanwhile, has pushed back on Merkley’s recounting of his experience with the detention centers. Deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley said earlier this week that the senator was “irresponsibly spreading blatant lies” and “smearing hardworking, dedicated law enforcement officials.”
On Tuesday, Merkley said the actions of administration officials speak for themselves — and he’s joining Democratic voices in calling for action.
“It’s morally bankrupt, it’s wrong on every level,” he said. “You don’t hurt children to influence policy choices of the parents.”
Democrats have some ideas about how to stop family separation
What to do with separated immigrant families has been a longstanding issue extending all the way back to the Obama administration, but it’s reemerging after the Trump administration’s May 7 announcement it would start prosecuting all people apprehended at the border trying to cross into the United States without documentation, even those seeking asylum. An effect of the policy is that families are being separated, as adults face prosecution.
Democrats are trying to advance policy solutions to stop this from happening. Democratic Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard of California is one of the most fervent voices on this: She’s one of two main sponsors of the Help Separated Families Act of 2018, along with fellow California Democratic Rep. Norma Torres.
“The Trump administration’s heartless anti-immigrant policies are tearing children from the loving arms of their undocumented parents,” Roybal-Allard said in a statement. “It is time for our government to affirm that your immigration status should not prohibit you from being a parent.”
Though she first introduced the bill in 2012, she’s made a renewed push in recent months as the public grows concerned about making sure parents have the right resources to try to place their children with family members or other caretakers. The bill does several things with the objective of keeping families together, including:
- Ensuring the immigration status of a parent, legal guardian, or relative caregiver isn’t used to separate them and their child.
- Prohibiting child welfare agencies from filing for termination of parental rights when a fit and willing parent or relative has been deported or detained, or is otherwise involved in an immigration proceeding, which is increasingly an issue as the Trump administration has stepped up arrests.
Roybal-Allard also introduced a separate bill last month aimed at giving immigrant children separated from their families certain legal protections. It’s the similarly titled HELP Separated Children Act, and the Congress member introduced it along with Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN).
This bill essentially gives detained parents more leeway to make arrangements for their children to be cared for by another family member or caregiver while they are detained, and allowing detained parents to participate in the family court system. It also ensures that parents and children can still visit and contact each other while the parent is detained, among other measures.
Fellow House Democratic Reps. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, Bennie Johnson of Mississippi, and Zoe Lofgren of California are leading a group of 108 Democrats calling for Congress to say that no DHS budget funds can be used for family separation.
But these efforts are unlikely to go anywhere in a Republican-controlled Congress that has been paralyzed by inaction on immigration. Some moderate Republicans are pushing a discharge petition to force a floor vote on a fix for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, but that’s a separate issue related to work permits for young undocumented immigrants who are already in the United States.
With increased attention on undocumented children housed in detention centers, there’s some talk about including action on unaccompanied minors as well. It would be an uphill battle, but one that Democrats and immigration advocates want to keep in the public eye.
The Trump administration didn’t start the humanitarian crisis, but it is exacerbating it
President Trump isn’t giving any credence to the Democrats’ ideas so far. Instead, he’s looking to place the blame on them.
Trump tweeted Tuesday morning that family separation at the border “is the fault of bad legislation passed by the Democrats,” though he provided no examples of what legislation he was talking about.
This is not true. No one in Congress has passed a law declaring family separation should happen — it’s a policy enacted by the executive branch. Members of the Trump administration, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, have framed the new policy as a way to deter families from coming to the United States.
“If people don’t want to get separated from their children, they should not bring them with them,” Sessions said in a recent interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. The radio host said he was “disturbed” by the administration’s policy of separating young children from their families.
Vox’s Dara Lind recently wrote about how the Trump administration settled on a family separation policy:
An increasing share of border crossers seeking asylum come as “family units”: one or more adults with one or more children. (The Trump administration refers to them as “purported ‘family units’” to underline the fact that they could be lying about their family relationship.) And it’s much harder for the government to detain whole immigrant families than it is for them to detain adults.
Federal court rulings have set strict standards on the conditions under which families can be detained. Under the Obama administration, courts ruled that they couldn’t be kept in detention for more than 20 days.
The Trump administration’s solution, now codified in policy, is to stop treating them as families: to detain the parents as adults and place the children in the custody of Health and Human Services as “unaccompanied minors.”
In some cases, according to immigration lawyers, parents separated from their children have begged to withdraw their asylum applications — on the logic that it would be easier for them to reunify their families in their home countries.
Hewitt and congressional Democrats share a common concern about family separation. But concern alone may not be enough to actually get something done.