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U.S. Senator Turned Away From Detention Center for Migrant Children

US Senator Jeff Merkley
Sen. Jeff Merkley AFP Contributor/Getty Images

A U.S. Senator from Oregon was turned away from a detention center for migrant children, including those separated from their parents at the U.S. border under a new immigration policy.

In a Facebook Live video on Sunday, Sen. Jeff Merkley walks up to a former Walmart in Brownsville, Texas, that has become a center to hold children detained at the border. In the video, he explains that his staff had sought permission to enter the facility, but that permission was declined by Homeland Security.

At the entrance to the facility, where the windows and doors are blacked out, he runs into a woman entering the facility who asks him to leave. He then requests to speak to a supervisor and waits outside for roughly 10 minutes. At that point, the police arrive, and soon after, the supervisor steps out of the facility, only to tell Merkley that he doesn’t have permission to talk about the center. Eventually, Merkley is asked to leave.

“When an organization has something to hide, not allowing members of congress to see it, in a democracy, is completely unacceptable,” Merkley said in an earlier Facebook Live video from the day. “What’s going on is an effort to prevent the press from being able to report to the American people what is happening. And that’s simply unacceptable.”

Merkley made the visit because, he said in the videos, he was concerned about the children separated from their families under a new “zero-tolerance” policy, officially announced on May 7, in which all migrant adults arriving at the border illegally are criminally prosecuted and separated from their children in order to be sent off to jails. Children separated from their parents are placed in the custody the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a unit of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Shelters meant to house them and migrant children who arrive at the border alone are nearing capacity. HHS is considering housing children on military bases to cope with the surging number of migrant children under their care.

It’s not known how many children have been separated under this new policy, but the Washington Post reported that in May, there were 10,773 children in custody, an increase of almost 2,000 from the previous month, before the policy was implemented.

“So far, as far as we know, no member of Congress has actually been allowed to see what’s going on with this program,” Merkley said in the Facebook Live video after being turned away from the facility.

After seeing the press being turned away from another border facility earlier in the day, Merkley complained that immigration officials were relying too much on privacy concerns as an excuse to avoid scrutiny. “We have to push back in terms of saying that it’s unacceptable, publicizing that it’s unacceptable, allow[ing] policymakers, and allow[ing] the press to get inside and see what’s going on.”

Merkley, a Democrat, entirely opposes the policy, which has been criticized as inhumane. “[The migrants] have come from horrific circumstances, and then to be treated horrifically when they’re here, when they’re here in the United States, as a way to say don’t come and seek asylum, is just simply wrong,” he said in the video. “This isn’t zero tolerance; this is zero humanity.”