Sen. Jeff Merkley talks with the Brownsville, Texas, police, who responded to a call from the supervisor of Casa Padre, a facility holding undocumented children. (Screenshot from video from Sen. Merkley’s office)
Sen. Jeff Merkley talks with the Brownsville, Texas, police, who responded to a call from the supervisor of Casa Padre, a facility holding undocumented children. (Screenshot from video from Sen. Merkley’s office)
Sen. Jeff Merkley said the suffering he found at the McAllen, Texas, Border Patrol Processing Center was horrific. The center, operated by the Department of Homeland Security, is where people seeking asylum are processed when they first arrive, and where many families are being separated.

“It’s a grim scene,” he told the Catholic Sentinel. “The first room I was in had a variety of fencing. They look like big cages. People were upset. All they had was their clothing and space blankets.”

Further in, he found himself in a big warehouse with even bigger fenced-in enclosures. In this room, children had been separated from their parents and grouped with other children of the same sex.

“One enclosure was filled with boys, lining up to eat,” Merkley said. “The smallest tyke was in front. I was struck by how small he was; 4 or 5 years old was my best guess. Some of the boys in there crossed the border as unaccompanied minors, others came with parents seeking asylum and had been torn away from their families. I can only imagine the trauma. They escaped horrific conditions abroad, and their parents must have been thinking, ‘Thank God, we’re safe now; I can request asylum and present my story.’ Instead they’re thrown into a jail-like place, concrete and fencing, separated from their children.”

Merkley had traveled to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas in the wake of the May 7 Trump administration announcement of a new policy of separating children from their parents at the border and placing children in separate detention facilities rather than in family facilities where children are able to stay with their parents. The administration described the harsh policy as justified on the grounds that it would be a deterrence. “This is a decision by Chief of Staff [John] Kelly and [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions that is contrary to international law and every religion and moral code to treat asylum seekers as criminals,” said Merkley.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops decried the new policy: "Forcibly separating children from their mothers and fathers is ineffective to the goals of deterrence and safety and contrary to our Catholic values. Family unity is a cornerstone of our American immigration system and a foundational element of Catholic teaching. 'Children are a gift from the Lord, the fruit of the womb, a reward.' (Psalm 127:3) Children are not instruments of deterrence but a blessing from God.”

The Sisters of the Holy Names of the U.S.-Ontario Province issued a similarly strongly worded statement, noting that for many years the United States managed to provide asylum hearings to parents without dividing families. “What has happened to our moral compass as a country, and what has happened to the family values that the White House supposedly upholds?” the Holy Names Sisters asked. “It might be a good time to remind this administration and all U.S. Christians that Jesus said, ‘Whatever you do to the least of these, you do also to me.’”

Merkley also visited the Catholic Charities-operated Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen. The contrast there was striking, he said. “Kids were running around and laughing, instead of the grim silence and crying at processing center.”

He acknowledged that there also were traumatized people at the respite center. “But in general, it was a whole different feeling, a whole different mood.”

Merkley’s next stop was Casa Padre, a taxpayer-funded facility in Brownsville, Texas, run by a non-profit on behalf of the Administration for Children and Families of the Department of Health and Human Services. This is one of several facilities that houses undocumented children, including many whose parents are seeking asylum. “We were told the estimate is 1,000 children in that center alone,” said Merkley, citing fragmentary reports from Texas state inspectors.

Merkley’s office requested he be given a tour, and the request was denied. Merkley said as far as his staff could ascertain, no senator or representative had been allowed to inspect Casa Padre.

He went anyway, appearing at the door of the facility and asking to speak with the supervisor. A 25-minute video of that failed attempt went viral, with more than a million views. The video shows the police arriving, called by the supervisor, and the senator leaving when asked to do so.

Southwest Key, the nonprofit that administers the facility, responded afterwards in a press release that they have welcomed elected officials at their facilities in the past, and would continue to do so. They also identified the Casa Padre facility as an “unaccompanied minor shelter,” not a “detention facility.” Casa Padre is regulated by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, with additional supervision by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), another department within the Administration for Children and Families. “We regret having to turn away Senator Merkley at our Casa Padre shelter,” the nonprofit wrote, explaining that the ORR has to approve any visitors.

The ORR issued its own response. “The Department of Health and Human Services takes the legal mandate to care for these children seriously. No one who arrives unannounced at one of our shelters demanding access to the children in our care will be permitted, even those claiming to be U.S. Senators. … We would welcome [Merkley] to engage in that process so that he may visit the facility to make headway on this important issue, rather than just headlines.”

Merkley believes that office will allow senators and representatives to visit in the future. “When you allow a member of congress to see what’s going on, it creates accountability,” said Sen. Merkley. “We can’t wrap military actions in secrecy and we certainly don’t want to wrap in secrecy how they’re treating children.”

He also thinks it’s important that facilities not be allowed weeks to prepare for a visit. That would allow for only “a spruced-up version,” he said. “We need to see how they operate on a day-to-day basis.”