Editor’s Note: Jeff Merkley is a Democratic senator from Oregon and Chris Van Hollen is a Democratic senator from Maryland. The opinions expressed in this commentary are theirs.
Pregnant and fearing for her unborn’s life, a woman fled a death threat from a drug cartel in Honduras and made her way to America, delivering her baby girl, Andrea, along the way.
Reaching the US border at the Hidalgo Port of Entry, she saw a daunting sight: Border guards blocking asylum-seekers from crossing into America on the pedestrian walkway.
After several days of unsuccessfully asking to enter to plead her case for asylum, she spotted a man making a few bucks washing windshields, and asked to borrow an extra squeegee. One car at a time, she told us, she made her way from Mexico up to the port of entry, posing as a windshield washer. When she finally reached the threshold, she was able to enter the United States and seek asylum.
But under Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ new standards for asylum — which could exclude those, like her, who are fleeing deadly gang threats — she may not qualify. What will become of her and her 65-day-old baby?
Another young woman, hanging her head with hopelessness and resignation, told us how she presented herself for asylum at an official border point, where she was charged with “illegally” crossing the border. She sits in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center with no idea if she will see her child again and no legal representation. Will she ever see her toddler again?
Yet another mother was panicked over her child’s health, because the border guards who took her son from her hadn’t recorded his medical needs. “Why wouldn’t they ask?” she demanded, throwing up her hands and shaking her head, defeated by her concerns and frustrations. How will she find out about her son’s health?
Imagine coming to a foreign country, not speaking the language, and suddenly your baby is taken from your arms and disappears. Imagine the terror that child feels, and the hopeless anguish of a mom who knows she is powerless to comfort her toddler. Imagine the impossible frustration of demanding day after day to know where your child is, without getting a clear answer.
This anguish has been caused by an administrative policy by President Donald Trump and US Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Under their “zero-tolerance policy,” anyone crossing the border without a visa — even those seeking asylum and even, in at least one case we saw, those attempting to cross at checkpoints — is considered a criminal. This means that their children are torn out of their arms and crammed into makeshift facilities, as the parents are put in ICE detention or in overflow beds in federal prisons. While conflicting reports from the administration have suggested this policy may be temporarily on hold, the fact remains: This “zero-tolerance” policy is a zero-humanity policy that makes zero sense.
Our Democratic House of Representatives colleagues – Reps. David Cicilline, Vicente Gonzalez, Sheila Jackson Lee, Mark Pocan, and Peter Welch – joined us on Father’s Day to visit the facilities where these individuals are being held. It is clear that parents and children are sitting in limbo, with virtually no access to legal advice or representation.
In this Kafkaesque system, even if you have a completely valid reason to seek refuge in the United States, you have virtually no way to prepare a solid case for asylum, no reliable way to contact your children, and no guarantee that you will ever see them again.
This is not the American way. The symbol of our nation is the Statue of Liberty, which carries the message “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” We have replaced her torch, that beacon of hope for centuries, with handcuffs.
Trump and Sessions must heed the cries of Americans of both parties and end this stain on our nation. The President and his administration created this policy, and the President could pick up the phone right now and end it.
On Wednesday, President Trump – clearly feeling the pressure – announced a new strategy, claiming he is ending this affliction against children. But the administration’s moves point to a new long-term strategy, one of family internment. The answer to one policy that inflicts pain on children is not to replace it with a new policy that inflicts pain on children. Imprisoning children along with their parents is never acceptable. “Handcuffs for all” is no solution at all. What’s more, the President has not addressed how – or if – all 2,300 children who have already been separated will be reunited with their parents – a heartbreaking uncertainty for many of these families.
It is important that President Trump understand firsthand the enormity of the harm his policy has caused. So as a group, we have invited him to meet with us so we can share what we have seen and heard.
Better yet, we challenge President Trump and the architects of his policy – Sessions, adviser Stephen Miller, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, and chief of staff John Kelly – to visit the same facilities we did, and to see where children have been torn away from their parents, to hear their cries, to witness their small bodies wrapped in space blankets leaning against chain-link fences or sitting on concrete floors.
We challenge the President and attorney general to visit the federal prisons and ICE detention facilities where stressed, frantic parents go day after day with little or no information about their or their children’s future, where people who tried to escape persecution are now sitting at plastic tables in prison scrubs.
We have personally spoken to the victims of the Trump administration policies. We have seen firsthand that Trump and Sessions are inflicting brutal pain and suffering. And everything we have seen has borne out what child experts across many different fields have said: that this policy inflicts irreparable trauma on children.
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There is a better way. We can have secure borders and process asylum cases humanely while protecting these innocent children. The Department of Homeland Security has used alternatives to detention that have demonstrated positive results and have been more cost-effective than draconian detention policies. They should pursue those alternatives again.
It’s time for all Americans – every person who cares more about the well-being of children than party lines – to contact the Justice Department, the White House, the Department of Homeland Security, and their representatives in Congress and demand an end to any policy that hurts children as a deterrence strategy. It’s past time for President Trump to put an end to this horror.