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Sen. Jeff Merkley asks: What nation can justify inflicting harm on children to discourage parents from exercising the international right to seek asylum from persecution?

COURTESY PHOTO: FACEBOOK LIVE - Oregon U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley talked with police officers outside a federal detention center in a converted Walmart store, during his attempt to visit a center where immigrant children are being held.Chain-link fence divides a broad warehouse into holding cells. I'm standing next to one for young boys. They had been told to form a line, the smallest in front. That little boy was knee-high to a grasshopper — perhaps 4 or 5 years old.

He was at a U.S. Customs and Border Control processing facility. In all likelihood, like many at this facility, he arrived a day before. Once he arrived, he was forcibly torn from his parents — parents who almost certainly fled horrific violence and persecution abroad, and presented themselves at the U.S. border with the hopes of pleading their case for asylum.

Instead of feeling hope and safety after a long and harrowing journey, that little boy undoubtedly felt enormous fear and anxiety. Indeed, experts tell us that children who are forcibly taking from their parents in that setting experience enormous trauma.

That scene — forever seared into my mind — was created by a so-called "zero tolerance" policy adopted in May by President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Under this policy, families crossing the border to present their case for asylum are treated as criminals: The parents are incarcerated and their children are taken away and transferred to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Essentially, this adds up to the Trump administration choosing to inflict tremendous trauma on children to discourage families from seeking asylum in the United States.

I ask President Trump: What nation can justify inflicting harm on children to discourage parents from exercising the international right to seek asylum from persecution? No religious tradition nor moral code in the universe supports such a strategy.

When I heard about this policy, I couldn't believe it was true. So last Sunday, June 3, I visited the Texas border to find out. At the McAllen border processing center, I was briefed by officials. When I asked about their rationale, they said they were simply following orders from above.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, under this policy, in just one 12-day period in May, more than 650 children were separated from their families. And the Office of Refugee Resettlement reports that they now have more than 11,000 children in their care — a 21 percent increase from April to May.

The McAllen officials observed that once the children were separated from their families, they were classified as "unaccompanied aliens" and turned over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. So I decided to visit a detention facility for children funded by the agency.

The facility is in a former Walmart store in Brownsville, Texas; the door is locked and the windows blacked out. It is run by a nonprofit that has, by all accounts, a solid reputation for caring for children. But however clean, however organized, however good the food is, the fact is that those children are experiencing tremendous harm by being torn away from their parents before arriving at that facility.

I sought permission a week earlier to tour the facility, and been told that a tour probably wouldn't be possible without gaining approval two weeks in advance. Even then, it wasn't clear that such permission would be granted. But, I thought if I knocked on the door and simply asked for the supervisor to show me around in order to get some sense of the conditions of the children, perhaps that request would be granted.

It wasn't.

I don't know how many children are there. I don't know if they have sufficient counselors. I don't know how successful agencies are in finding homes for them across the country. I don't know if they are in contact with their parents — but I've heard that is extremely difficult.

I do know this: The policy that brought children there, separated from their parents, is absolutely horrific and wrong.

Americans should be outraged by the fact that our taxpayer dollars are being used to inflict spiteful and traumatizing policies on innocent children. I am calling on the relevant Senate committees to hold hearings about this situation. And I'm calling on all Americans to register their opposition with their House and Senate members.

As a parent, I cannot imagine the horror of having my kids taken from my arms with no idea where they're going or when I might see them again. When I think of that little 4- or 5-year-old boy, stranded and scared — and think of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, more children who are experiencing that same suffering — my heart breaks and my blood boils.

This isn't a "zero tolerance" policy—it's a zero humanity policy. We cannot let this attack on children and families stand.

Jeff Merkley, a Portland Democrat, is Oregon's junior U.S. senator. He can be reached through his website: http://www.merkley.senate.gov/contact/


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