Merkley travels to detention, processing centers to look into refugee camps for immigrant children.

HOLLY M. GILL/MADRAS PIONEER - U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley visits with people at the Madras Performing Arts Center on Jan. 4, following his town hall meeting.In a short meeting before the town hall, Merkley discussed his alarm about the growing population in the detention centers for immigrant children, which he has now visited on three different occasions.

On June 3, he went to a processing center for unaccompanied 10- to 17-year-old boys at a former Walmart in Brownsville, Texas, and livestreamed as he was denied entrance to the facility. He was allowed to visit a processing center in McAllen, Texas, about an hour away, where families were separated.

Last month, Merkley returned to Texas to visit three detention centers, after news that a second child had died while in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. On Dec. 15, he visited the Tornillo Children's Detention Camp, which was housing about 2,100 boys and about 600 girls ages 13-17.

While the U.S. has a long history of setting up refugee camps, Merkley was most concerned about seeing the children marched around the camp like soldiers, and viewing the military precision of their made-up beds.

Detained migrant children are only allowed to be held in government detention for 20 days, and 2,000 of them have surpassed that, he said, adding, "It's costing about a $1 million a day to operate."

Merkley called on the administration to release about 1,300 of the children in the camps, who already have U.S. sponsors who are able to host them. "Three days later, they said they would release them," said Merkley. He has since introduced legislation to close child prison camps.

The South Texas Family Residential Center for mothers and their children, in Dilley, Texas, and the Karnes County Residential Center for fathers and sons were also part of the December visit.

"I met a woman in Dilley who had been locked up for six months with her daughter," said Merkley. The woman, who had a beauty parlor in her native country of Honduras, had been extorted by drug gangs, and when she couldn't pay, they had assaulted her daughter. The woman fled with her daughter the next day.

Currently, he said, there are about 15,000 children in detention centers. "The administration has conveyed the picture that we're at a besieged, massive level (of illegal immigration)," he said, pointing out that numbers are actually down significantly from the early 2000s, when three to four times more people were detained each year after illegally crossing the border.

Merkley, who is disgusted by the strategy of treating people "horrifically" to send a political message, would like to see the people seeking asylum treated "with respect and dignity while waiting for asylum."

Monday, Jan. 7, he returned to the southern border to look into the death of another child in U.S. custody.

"The death of any child is a tragedy," said Merkley, before heading to the border. "As a parent, I can't imagine the heartbreak of fleeing to a new country, only to watch your child die just at the moment you thought you had reached safety. We need full transparency and full accountability for these deaths, which is why I'm going back to the border to get answers."

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