Was U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley’s visit to an immigrant detention center a political stunt or a valid exercise in political theater that shed light on some hard truths of Trump administration policies?
While there may be room for both interpretations, Merkley’s action illustrated a dangerous truth: America’s ever-swelling system of immigrant prisons considers itself above legislative oversight.
Merkley’s video of his attempt to gain entry to a facility in Brownsville, Texas run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement has gone viral. Watch it at tinyurl.com/Merkley-Refugee-Video.
Did he really expect to get in during an unannounced drop-in? Perhaps not. But in the nation most of us think we reside in, a visit from a U.S. senator to a federally funded facility warrants special consideration. Leaders of one of the three co-equal branches of government, it used to be that any bureaucrat or contractor would be loath to cross a senator. Such courtesy or instinct for self-preservation is apparently no longer to be expected from the industrial complex put in charge of imprisoning undocumented immigrants.
After calling the cops on Merkley, reporting revealed the detention center’s CEO makes $771,000 a year — four times more than a senator. No wonder, then, that he treated Merkley like a door-to-door solicitor?
We should be even more outraged by the underlying policy to which Merkley was responding — the separation of immigrant children and parents, even when they are making claims for refugee status. The administration says this harsh step is meant to deter all unauthorized border-crossers, while critics observe it is a likely violation of international refugee-protection treaties.
All four Pacific Northwest senators joined in a 40-signature letter last week calling on Trump’s Department of Homeland Security to quit taking children from their parents at the border.
“Children and their parents seeking asylum and safety in the United States should not have to live in fear that they will be forcibly separated once they reach the border,” Sen. Ron Wyden said about legislation aimed at ending the practice. “This bill will put an end to the Trump administration’s inhumane policy of separating families, which runs counter to American and humanitarian values and only succeeds in further traumatizing innocent children.”
Although the bill stands little chance in the Republican-controlled Congress, it is urgently needed, along with a thorough review of other questionable moves by Trump officials.
For example, U.S. immigration authorities confirmed to the Associated Press last week that more than 1,600 people arrested at the U.S.-Mexico border, including parents who have been separated from their children, are being transferred to the federal Bureau of Prisons system because other facilities are out of room.
“There is simply no moral or legal justification for separating children from their parents in this draconian effort seeking to deter other immigrants,” Matt Adams, legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, said in a written statement. “This is not only unlawful, but also contrary to basic human decency.”
All this comes too close to our national mistake of interning Japanese-American citizens at the outset of World War II. Now seen as a grave moral error, too few of their fellow citizens possessed the courage to speak out against it at the time. History will look at today’s anti-immigrant hysteria in a similar way. All politicians and citizens should aspire to be on the side of benevolence when it comes to safeguarding desperate families who come to us seeking mercy.