Inside Look: Congressional delegation gets new details on immigrant shelters

Brownsville — Six congressional members toured the Southwest Key Programs-Casa Padre facility on Father’s Day Sunday, where approximately 1,500 minor undocumented immigrants are detained in an old Walmart.

“It’s a little bit ironic, House of the Father, these are children who are not with their parents,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon. “The vast bulk of these children, we’re told, arrived on the border as unaccompanied minors, but a certain share of them came with their parents and then were separated from their parents.”

Two weeks ago, Merkley attempted to visit that same facility, but staffers turned him away and called the Brownsville Police Department. Since then, President Donald Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy to prosecute all undocumented immigrants in the country and separate children from parents who are charged with immigration violations has erupted into a national conversation about the morality of separating children from their parents and enforcing immigration laws.

On Sunday, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland; U.S. Reps. Peter Welch, D-Vermont; David Cicilline, D-Rhode Island; Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin; and Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, joined Merkley on a tour that began Sunday afternoon at the McAllen Border Patrol Processing Center.

The delegation traveled from the processing center to McAllen Border Patrol Station and then to the Hidalgo Port of Entry. From there, they traveled to Brownsville to visit Southwest Key Programs-Casa Padre. The group was scheduled to finalize its trip with a visit to the ICE ERO Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos.

In Brownsville, Cicilline said that authorities directed the delegation not to talk to any of the children housed at Southwest Key Programs-Casa Padre during the tour, which lasted approximately 30 minutes. The press was not allowed inside the facility.

While Merkley and company spent a large amount of the post-tour press conference lambasting the policy, calling it immoral and traumatic, details of Casa Padre’s operation did trickle out.

For instance, Cicilline said that two months ago the facility housed 300 children, but over the last six weeks that number has ballooned to 1,500.

Pocan told reporters that staff told him that Southwest Key Programs is looking for another 1,000 beds because it anticipates having to house more children who arrive on the border unaccompanied or who are separated from their families.

“This week, 850 people were hired by them,” Pocan said.

According to Pocan, staff also told him that they need to hire 90 mental health professionals to help deal with the influx of children being housed at the facility over the last two months.

“And you get out two hours a day. That, to a child, 10 years old, is a prison and we just really need to do everything we can to make the president realize that his decision was a perverse one,” Pocan said.

Hollen revealed that about 5 percent of children held in Casa Padre were separated from their parents, and throughout all of Southwest Key Programs facilities, roughly 10 percent of the population of kids were separated from their parents under the “zero-tolerance” policy.

“I think it was about 100 or so here,” Hollen said. “Most of the kids that have been separated from their parents are at other facilities in this area, some of them that are run by the same organization and they’re under 10 years old.”

In fact, the majority of children that have been separated from their parents are under the age of 10, Hollen said.

“And make no mistake that is a direct result of the Trump administration policy of separating parents from their kids,” Hollen said. “[Southwest Key Programs] told us that they’ve seen a huge spike in the number of these kids over the last six weeks.”

Hollen said the policy is cynical and harmful.

“The president can change this policy today. He could change it right now. He could change it on Father’s Day and make sure some of these kids can be reunited with their dad and mom,” Hollen said.

Merkley dubbed the “zero-tolerance” policy as a “zero-humanity” policy.

“The administration is arguing that by inflicting this harm on children and parents, this threat, they’re sending a deterrent message for people not to seek asylum in the United States,” Merkley said. “It’s completely unacceptable under any moral code.”

While in Hidalgo County, Merkley said he met a young mother who fled Honduras after a gang threatened to kill her because her family defaulted on a debt made by a shady bank.

“She was under the understanding that her life was at risk once her baby was born. And, quite frankly, she filled us in on what happened just after she left Honduras, while she was still pregnant. It was a month ago that her uncle was killed in this situation,” Merkley said. “So it’s very real, very tangible.”

Merkley brought the woman up because two weeks ago when he visited that same bridge, there were dozens of families camped out waiting to claim asylum.

“Now, today, when we were out on that bridge, there are no families camped out. So I asked, why not,” Merkley said. “And they’re really anxious to answer that question, but the advocates said two things, one that there’s always a pair of American officers out in the very middle of the bridge when Mexico becomes America to stop people from crossing the middle line of that bridge if they are seeking asylum. So, we’re holding them at bay.”

Merkley said those same advocates told him that Mexican officials on the far end of the bridge seem to be working in partnership to also stop people seeking asylum.

So Merkley asked the Honduran woman how she was able to make an asylum claim. The woman told him she got in line with cars entering the country and pretended to be washing windows and once she got past the middle, she got in the pedestrian line to make a claim.

“You can’t have it both ways. The Trump administration is going to say, we’re arresting people who come across between the checkpoints but then to be stopping people from crossing at the checkpoint,” Merkley said. “It’s part of a coordinated strategy to stop asylum seekers from ever being able to make their case.”