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Asylum seekers are being ‘afflicted by our own government,’ Sen. Merkley says

Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley visited a migrant processing center in Texas on Sunday where children, either unaccompanied or separated from their families at the border, were being held in what he described as large cages. The Oregon senator joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the conditions he observed.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just back from Texas, Senator Merkley joins me now from Capitol Hill.

    So, Senator, what did you see exactly at the border?

  • Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.:

    Well, I saw two things.

    I was able to go to a processing center, and I was given permission to enter that. That's run by the Department of Homeland Security. And in that processing center, you have one room where people have just arrived. There are cyclone fence and post cages in which people are put.

    It was very, very crowded. Folks had nothing but their clothing and these space blanket, tin foil contraptions. And then they went through processing. And then there was a warehouse with much larger units also built with fences and fence posting.

    The — and, there, people were separated. Children were separated from their parents. And there was one enclosure that had a significant number of children, several dozen, maybe three or four dozen, children.

    And they were lining up for food, and they were going from the smallest to the largest. And what just really struck me is the little kid at the front of the line must not have been 4 or 5 years old, and they ascended in height through 16 and 17.

    And I was just sitting there thinking about, some of these were unaccompanied minor. But many of them were without their parents because the administration tore them out of their parents' arms and put them into this enclosure.

    And these are folks who are applying for asylum. So they have experienced horrendous circumstances overseas, probably difficult circumstances getting to the border. They have in mind that Statue of Liberty and the fact we are a nation of folks with ancestors who came to America escaping affliction, and then what happens?

    They're afflicted by our own government.


  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator, let me just stop and ask you.

    You used the term — you talked about fence — cyclone fence. You used the term cages. What exactly did you mean by that?

  • Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.:

    By pages? I'm sorry?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I'm sorry. When you said cages where people are held.


  • Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.:

    Oh, cages.

    So, yes. So, these — it's fence posting and cyclone fence, and it's like what you would see if you were picturing a — like a dog kennel, how that would be constructed in a yard, and much larger, a variety of sizes, but that's — that's the structure that's used.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator, I want to cite what the administration has said, because you talk about these families being re-traumatized after what they have been through.

    The administration says, look, it's our policy to use the least restrictive accommodation possible for these children. Is that what you saw once these children were separated?

  • Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.:

    No, absolutely not.

    So, the administration adopted a new policy in April, and Sessions gave a speech on it in May, saying that they were now going to rip the children out of the parents' arms when those parents were awaiting a hearing for asylum.

    And that means hearings to present their case on the affliction that they experienced in their home country, and whether they were at risk should they return.

    We have always treated such families graciously, because we have a whole history of people coming here escaping affliction. But the experts are weighing in. They're saying what damage this does to the children, and, of course, completely stresses out the parents to have their children taken away and sent to some unknown place.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator, a couple things.

    As you know, the president tweeting today that Democrats are responsible for this. He pointed to bad legislation that's been passed over the decades. And we just heard about that in that report.

  • Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.:

    This is a complete phony argument.

    There is no legislation that says you have to take children away from their families when they're waiting for an asylum hearing. This is a policy that was debated inside the administration. They first debated it shortly after Trump came into the office. They did a pilot project with it last summer.

    They were very consciously making an administrative decision to inflict this harm on the children in order to influence their parents.

    And Sessions confirmed that again today when he talked about, we need to get the message out for people not to come. The argument was, if we afflict the children, the parents will not come and seek asylum.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The White House — again, I'm sure you have heard this today — the White House spokesman is saying, accusing you of — quote — "irresponsibly spreading blatant lies" — quote — "smearing hardworking, dedicated law enforcement officials who are working at the border," and then goes on to talk about some things that have happened in your own home state, where immigrants have been treated badly.

  • Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.:

    Yes, the administration doesn't want to address the actual issue of their decision to afflict children to influence parents.

    And so they're changing the topic. They're running a smear campaign. They're attacking me on all kinds of things. Realize what that is. That is an enormous distraction.

    It's important for the media to go back to the administration and say, quit changing the topic. Why did you adopt this policy? Why are you inflicting harm on the children to influence the parents, as you have described that you are doing?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, just back from the border with Mexico, we thank you.

  • Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.:

    You're welcome. Thank you, Judy.

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