Sen. Jeff Merkley upended the immigration debate earlier this month after he visited a border detention facility in Texas and described maltreated children stowed in dog kennels, subjected to “trauma” by the federal government.
But a court-appointed compliance monitor visited the same facility weeks earlier and gave a much different portrayal, describing children snacking on apples, drinking milk and bottled water, and sitting around watching movies on television.
Far from trauma, the children said they got showers, brushed their teeth, got a change of clothes and were able to get some sleep on bed mats. They had a chance to call relatives, to speak with consular officials from their home countries, and to take needed medications.
And while some of them complained about the temperature in the holding rooms, but the compliance officer said it was a steady 72.5 degrees, which is within the range allowed by the judge.
Henry A. Moak Jr., the chief accountability officer for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said during his April visit he even tried the water from the five-gallon jugs, used an infrared thermometer to take the temperature, and peeked into the laundry facilities to see the children’s own clothes being washed.
“I also observed several televisions throughout the facility to provide entertainment for the minors. When I first arrived, I saw several minors watching a movie,” he said in a report to Judge Dolly M. Gee, who ordered regular checks to determine whether the government is providing adequate care to the children detained by Homeland Security.
Mr. Moak’s conclusion: They are.
His report, filed with Judge Gee on June 1, stands in stark contrast to what Mr. Merkley saw when he visited the same facility two days later, describing overcrowded conditions he said amounted to treating the children like animals.
“I witnessed something that is now seared into my mind: a large warehouse facility with cells constructed of fence posts and chain link fencing — like dog kennels or large cages,” the senator said in an email written for a liberal pressure group this week.
Mr. Merkley saw the food and water, the showers, clean clothes and sanitary supplies, arranged on shelves around the outside of the massive warehouse-style facility.
But he was struck by the chain-link fencing that divided the warehouse into cells, with the fencing even covering the ceilings and a concrete floor below. Children slept on pads with mylar blankets.
In one telling detail the children’s shoelaces had been taken away. Some of them had torn the mylar blankets into strips and tried to turn those into laces.
The treatment of the children is a heated topic of debate right now, as the government faces a new surge of what authorities call “Unaccompanied Alien Children,” or UAC — juveniles who arrive at the border without parents.
Border Patrol agents nabbed more than 6,400 UAC in May alone, which is a four-fold increase compared to May 2017.
The problem is even more acute now given the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy for border jumpers. Under that policy adults who try to sneak into the U.S. are being prosecuted criminally, meaning they go to jail — and their children, who can’t follow them to jail, are separated and become UAC.
Immigrant-rights activists and Democrats in Congress have vehemently objected to the zero-tolerance policy, saying it inflicts trauma on both parents and children who get separated.
It’s also likely added more people to the system, leaving the detention facilities overwhelmed at the time Mr. Merkley visited.
“This child-snatching has to end, and it has to end immediately,” Mr. Merkley told reporters Tuesday as he threw his support behind a bill that would outlaw most instances of parent-child separation by Homeland Security. “It is a dark scar on the heart of this administration and the heart of our nation.”
Mr. Merkley visited CPC-Ursula, the government’s most active border facility for children, at the beginning of this month.
In addition to the crowded “dog kennel” cells, he described children lining up for mealtime, with the littlest boy “knee-high to a grasshopper” at perhaps four or five years old. Mr. Merkley said he didn’t know whether the boy came to the U.S. without parents or was separated once here because of criminal charges, but said the vision was “seared into my mind.”
“This just goes beyond anything I could imagine. It’s morally bankrupt, it’s wrong on every level,” he said of family separations.
He also said while at Ursula, he asked whether the children could call their parents. The agent in charge said it was easy. He said he doubts that.
But Mr. Moak, who during his April visit to Ursula interviewed 13 children, said two brothers and a sister, all teens from Honduras, said they’d been in the facility for less than 48 hours and had already been able to call a family member and to speak to the Honduran consulate.
And where Mr. Merkley said the children were kept in “cages,” Mr. Moak called them “holding rooms.”
According to photos from several years ago, the facility is a large warehouse-sized room with fence-style dividers separating one area from another, so it’s possible both descriptions are accurate.
There were some complaints about the facility in Mr. Moak’s report, such as migrants who thought the 72-degree temperature was too cold. He chalked that up to culture shock, saying it’s likely that they weren’t used to air conditioning.
Homeland Security spokeswoman Katie Waldman said Mr. Moak’s report should counter some of the accusations being lobbed at the government.
“The recent inspection at Border Patrol facilities — including the facility visited by Sen. Merkley — proves that DHS is not only abiding by the letter of law but maintains a high standard care for individuals in our custody,” she said. “DHS takes this responsibility extremely seriously and as shown in this report is in compliance with court orders and statute — any implication to the contrary by members of Congress is factually incorrect.”
Treatment of UAC is government both by federal law and by a 1990s-era court agreement known as the Flores Settlement. That ruling was updated under the Obama administration by a federal judge in California, Judge Gee, who ruled the government was maltreating children by holding them too long in Homeland Security facilities, and putting them through rough conditions.
She ordered improvements and tasked Mr. Moak with making sure the government is complying at the border, and asked Dean Dougherty, the juvenile coordinator for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to report back on what happens to the children when they’re in ICE custody, which usually means with their parents.
He said more than 70 percent of them were released within 20 days, which was the standard Judge Gee set. Mr. Dougherty said he reviewed each of the other 2,000 cases and, in each instance, found there were extenuating circumstances that justified the prolonged stay.
Once children are released from CBP or ICE custody they are either immediately sent to live with relatives or head to dorms run by the federal Health Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Mr. Merkley, in his visits earlier this month, also tried to get in to see one of those ORR facilities, but was denied. Officials said their policies, which predate the Trump administration and are in place to protect children’s privacy, require a lengthy advance notice.
Mr. Merkley said he’s writing legislation that would give members of Congress the right to conduct surprise inspections.