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EDITORIAL

Secretive detention centers have no place in the US

Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, spoke at a rally in Washington, D.C., last fall.
Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, spoke at a rally in Washington, D.C., last fall.(Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press/File)

IF A MEMBER of Congress can’t even get a peek at an immigration detention facility near the border with Mexico, it inevitably raises questions about what the federal government is hiding.

On Sunday afternoon, US Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, posted on social media his attempts to visit children who had been separated from their families at the US-Mexico border in Brownsville, Texas. In a Facebook Live video, Merkley is seen approaching an old Walmart with blacked-out windows and locked doors. The building now serves as a detention center for children, and Merkley wanted to witness the conditions under which these kids, allegedly in the hundreds, are being housed.

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Not only was he denied entry, but the private, nonprofit government contractor running the place also called the police, who showed up later. Merkley said he had tried to schedule a visit in advance, through the proper means, but was snubbed.

Admittedly, it was a theatrical stunt meant to highlight the troubling lack of transparency around the new and cruel immigration policies of the Trump administration, which is taking a “zero tolerance” approach to migrants and their families apprehended at the border. But Merkley’s act raises a few essential questions: Don’t all Americans deserve to view the actual repercussions of the Trump administration’s harsh new policy? What does a policy, inhumane on its face, look like in real life? And what is it costing Americans?

Trump’s senseless crackdown is artificially creating a surge of migrant children in federal custody, as they’re separated from their parents who are promptly criminally charged and then jailed. The kids are classified by the government as unaccompanied minors and are transferred to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee and Resettlement. The agency is already overwhelmed with kids, suggesting — to no one’s surprise — that the administration never took the time to prepare the resources and logistics necessary to handle properly all the separated children generated by its policies. Picture the chaos that the Muslim ban unleashed at US airports, but with children.

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Enter Merkley and other lawmakers, who have attempted to find out on their own how the feds are taking care (or not) of these children, many of whom come from families with credible asylum claims.

There’s a lot to investigate. While it’s true that the president of the United States is within his powers to enact these immigration policies, as cruel and Draconian as they may be, those policies are being paid for with taxpayers’ dollars.

Consider Southwest Key Programs, the private, nonprofit organization running the makeshift detention center in Brownsville that Merkley tried to tour. Southwest Key alone apparently runs 27 shelters for unaccompanied minors in Arizona, California, and Texas. According to a Newsweek report, data released by HHS shows the nonprofit has been awarded contracts totalling $310 million in fiscal year 2018 alone. How are these shelters run? Exactly who and how many children does Southwest Key house?

All Americans deserve to know. And more than a handful of members of Congress should try to find out. The Senate should hold hearings on the matter so that average citizens can learn what the zero tolerance policy really looks like, and judge for themselves if it’s how we want our government to treat migrant children.