On Sunday, June 2, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., was denied access to a shelter facility for children in Brownsville, Texas, where Merkley said the children of refugees seeking asylum were being held.
Merkley documented the event in a live video posted to his Facebook page. In the video, Merkley is shown approaching a building with blacked out windows—formerly a Walmart—where he spoke with a representative who asked the senator to leave. Later, a supervisor emerged from the building and declined to give a statement, offering the phone number for the public affairs office of the Administration for Children and Families, the parent agency for the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the organization responsible for the detention center. Simultaneously, two officers from the Brownsville Police Department arrived at the scene. After a brief conversation, the officers asked Merkley and his film crew to leave the premises.
Any children who may be at the detention center Merkley visited would be held under Unaccompanied Alien Children Program—under which ORR takes responsibility for the care of unaccompanied minors apprehended by U.S. Department of Homeland Security immigration officials—regardless of whether they were actually accompanied by their parents or another adult at the time they were detained by border enforcement officials.
While children are allowed to remain with their parents during a normal asylum hearing process, the Trump administration has resolved to criminally prosecute every illegal border crossing. This means children of parents who cross the border illegally will be placed in the care of adult sponsors or in shelters. Spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Ravina Shamdasani called on the U.S. to “immediately halt” the practice of separating children from families in a press conference delivered early on June 5.
Merkley has continued to advocate for transparency after the publication of his video, which has received more than two million views on Facebook. In response to the video, White House Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley stated in a press release, “Senator Merkley is irresponsibly spreading blatant lies about routine immigration enforcement while smearing hard-working, dedicated law enforcement officials at [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and [Customs and Border Protection].” No law enforcement officials from either ICE or CBP were visible in the video, and Merkley made no comment regarding either agency specifically.
Merkley’s Communications Director Ray Zaccaro responded in a statement: “President Trump and the administration are engaged in a cruel policy of inflicting trauma on children by ripping them out of the hands of their parents. By doing so with taxpayer dollars, they are making all Americans complicit in this unconscionable action. Americans have every right to full transparency about the cruelty being inflicted in our names.”
On June 7, Merkley released a letter addressed to ORR Director Scott Lloyd regarding U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ zero tolerance immigration policy—announced in April 2018—which provides more resources to prosecute people who cross the border illegally. The policy, Merkley wrote, “functionally separates children from their parents at the border.”
In the letter, Merkley posed 19 questions to Lloyd regarding who was being held in the detention facilities, the services that were available to them and their access to legal resources. No response to the letter has been released as of yet.
Though the Brownsville facility—known as the Casa Padre shelter—is technically administered by the U.S. government, it is managed by Texas-based nonprofit organization Southwest Key Programs according to CNN. In addition to managing immigrant children’s shelters, the organization provides court diversion and education programs for youth.
In a statement, SKP stated, “Casa Padre is not a detention facility. It is an unaccompanied minor shelter with many layers of oversight: It is licensed for childcare by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.” The statement provides no pictures of the inside of the facility, nor are any available elsewhere on the organization’s website.