Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley (D) was barred from entering an immigration detention center in Texas and had the police called on him during his visit, according to a live video of the encounter posted to Facebook on Sunday evening.
Merkley traveled to the facility in Brownsville, called Casa Padre, to criticize a recent Trump administration policy that will likely result in more undocumented immigrant children being separated from their parents. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced last month that the Justice Department would dramatically increase prosecutions of families who cross the U.S. border illegally, even if children would be removed from their parents during the process.
In the video, Merkley said he was going to try to tour the facility after his staff attempted to set up a meeting to do so last week. He can be seen walking up to the building, which he says is a former Walmart with blacked-out windows and locked doors, where he is told that he can’t come in, but that her supervisor would come meet the senator outside.
Before the manager ventured out, however, police arrived. The supervisor later tells Merkley he can’t give the lawmaker a statement and refers him to an outside phone number.
“The reason why I came is this new policy that the attorney general has in place of families that are waiting for the adjudication of their application for asylum in the U.S., and the children are being separated,” Merkley tells police officers.
“We usually told ahead of time if anybody is going to come and visit us,” the facility’s supervisor replied, before repeating that he won’t tell the lawmaker anything.
Merkley said during the livestream that the center “may currently be housing hundreds of refugee children who have been separated from their parents.” No member of Congress has visited the facility, Merkley noted, which is being run by a nonprofit group called Southwest Key Programs.
Sessions has roundly defended his agency’s new policy, saying it would deter illegal border crossings into the United States. Democrats, on the other hand, have roundly slammed the changes, although President Donald Trump blamed the party for the family separations last week even though it was his own administration that instituted the move.
“If you are smuggling a child then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law,” Sessions said at a conference in Arizona last month regarding the enforcement. “If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”
House Democrats have called on the Justice Department to end the new prosecutions. They sent a letter to Sessions and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen earlier this month urging the pair to end a practice “antithetical not only to American values but to basic decency and humanity.”
“We appreciate the Senator’s interest in the subject, and are happy to provide him with an understanding of the immigration process: DHS follows the laws passed by Congress and processes alien children safely and humanely. ... I encourage Senator Merkley to work with the administration to fix the underlying loopholes that act as a pull factor for illegal immigration and place these children at risk from smugglers and human traffickers,” DHS press secretary Tyler Q. Houlton said Monday in a statement.
Watch the full video below:
This story has been updated with comment from DHS.