WASHINGTON — Representative Joe Kennedy III joined protesters at the Texas border Sunday and blasted President Trump for separating migrant children from their parents, comparing those fleeing violence in Central America to his own ancestors who left Ireland generations ago.
“My family, on both sides — this is how we came to this country,” the Massachusetts Democrat told the Globe in a phone interview Sunday. “It was extreme poverty and famine and a government that was unwilling to address the needs of its people.”
He accused Trump of a “betrayal of American values,’’ a criticism that some high-profile Republicans have also lodged.
“That is traumatizing to the children who are innocent victims. And it is contrary to our values in this country,” Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation’’ on Sunday.
Getting tough on illegal immigration has been a Trump core policy since he launched his presidential campaign three years ago, and it helped get him elected. But the backlash over the forced separation of parents and children, which is widely considered inhumane, has been both extensive and bipartisan.
Kennedy, bringing his potent family pedigree directly to the fight, joined his friend Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas at a protest Sunday in the small border town of Tornillo, near El Paso. That is where the Trump administration has decided to place hundreds of children — some forcibly taken from their parents shortly after arriving at the border — in a “tent city.”
The federal government is rapidly running out of space to house the many children separated from their families, leading it to explore more makeshift housing options around the country.
Kennedy and O’Rourke spoke to officials who were staffing the tent city facility in Tornillo but were denied entry to inspect it. The officials told Kennedy they took very good care of the children.
“One of the personnel said we treat these folks like they’re our kids,” Kennedy said. “Yeah, but they’re not your kids, they’re somebody else’s kids and they’re screaming for their parents.”
Kennedy spoke to protesters in both English and Spanish. “On Father’s Day we recognize that universal truth: that humanity does not come with citizenship or with a green card,” Kennedy told the crowd of hundreds of people.
Kennedy and O’Rouke, who is running to unseat Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, this November, are two of at least a dozen Democratic lawmakers who fanned out across the country Sunday to protest Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy that separated nearly 2,000 children from their parents in just six weeks.
Outrage over the policy has grown, with Trump attempting to distance himself from the separations, falsely claiming that Democrats — who are in the minority in both houses of Congress — are to blame for his own policy.
“I hate the children being taken away,” Trump told reporters Friday. “The Democrats have to change their law.”
But even members of his own party and administration have admitted the “zero tolerance” policy is the president’s. It is designed to slow the flow of migrants at the United States’ southern border, including people seeking asylum from violence-torn Central American countries.
There is no law requiring the administration to prosecute every adult, including those with young children, for misdemeanor illegal entry when they cross the border.
“President Trump can stop this policy with a phone call,” Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said Friday on CNN.
“Look, it’s just flatly untrue,” Kennedy said of Trump’s claim that forced separation is not his policy. “The president of the United States is clearly uncomfortable that the American public understands that as a result of his policies that children are being ripped from their parents’ arms. And he’s doing this as punishment for parents trying to seek a better life for their children. It’s hard for me to understand a worse betrayal of American values than that.”
Few have rushed to the administration’s defense on this issue, even on the right, and some moderate Republicans have explicitly called the practice un-American. Evangelist and Trump ally Franklin Graham called the separations “disgraceful” last week.
“Nobody likes this policy,” White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Conway challenged anonymous White House officials who told the Washington Post the president was using the child separations as leverage in congressional negotiations over immigration legislation. “I want that person to say it to my face,” she said.
“At the end of the day, in the land of the free and the home of the brave, we should not be using children as deterrents when it comes to our broken immigration system,” Representative Will Hurd, Republican of Texas, told the El Paso Times.
Kennedy said he told the protesters in Tornillo his family’s own immigration story.
Kennedy’s great-grandmother Rose showed his father old newspaper clippings of job advertisements warning “No Irish Need Apply” when he was a child. “She told them to never forget what others endured so they could enjoy those extraordinary blessings they were able to have,” Kennedy said.
“It’s awfully hard for me as the beneficiary of a family that has been extraordinarily fortunate and to know a bit of their own story and the hardships they had to go through to not see those similarities with individuals who are searching for nothing more than a better life for their children,” he said.
The president is planning a visit to Congress on Tuesday evening to discuss House Republicans’ proposed legislation addressing family separations and other immigration issues.
A bill backed by moderate Republicans, which provides a path to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children as well as money for Trump’s wall, would also make it legal for the administration to detain migrant children and parents together for long periods of time.
Republicans say this will end the child-parent separations, but immigration advocates say putting children in a prison-like atmosphere is not a solution.
Correction:Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Sunday television news show “Meet the Press.”Liz Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.