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Oregon senator was first member of Congress to visit southern border and challenge child-separation and family-imprisonment policies; 'we have to relight Lady Liberty's torch'

PMG PHOTO BY PETER WONG - U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., with his new book, 'America Is Better Than This: Trump's War Against Migrant Families'When Sen. Jeff Merkley flew from Oregon to Texas 16 months ago, little did he suspect that his travels would thrust him into the national controversy about President Donald Trump's attempts to thwart families from immigrating to the United States and separate children in the process.

Merkley's odyssey took him to states where migrant families and children are housed — including Oregon — and also to Mexico and Central America. It resulted in a book that tells the stories of some of these families and draws together the threads of U.S. immigration policy under Trump.

The book is "America Is Better Than This: Trump's War Against Immigrant Families," which Merkley discussed at an event sponsored by Powell's Books at Revolution Hall in Portland. Among his other stops during the summer recess: New York, Seattle, San Francisco and Miami.

Merkley said in an interview before his appearance that he wrote the book to give context to the many stories arising in the news about immigration.

"I want to educate Americans. They hear this piece and that, but it's hard to get a comprehensive picture," he said.

"I want them to push to end these strategies because they are absolutely out of the character of the United States of America. I feel like Lady Liberty's torch has been extinguished by this administration. We have to relight that torch."

His reference was to the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor.

In addition to laying out developments in immigration, Merkley said, he sought to give the book a human dimension by telling mother-daughter stories. He said he took advice from Richard Wolffe, a journalist who writes a column for Guardian US — the American version of the British newspaper — and an author of two books about President Barack Obama.

Two women from Guatemala, Albertina Contreras Teletor and Yakelin Garcia Contreras, were Merkley's guests on Feb. 5 when Trump delivered the State of the Union address in the U.S. House chamber. It was also the same day Yakelin turned 12. She and her mother had been separated for two months before they were reunited.

Merkley also met another mother and daughter who fled Honduras, and were in a detention camp in Dilley, Texas. He used assumed names because they fear retaliation.

"The mother sobbed for 45 minutes while I met with her," Merkley recalled. Her daughter turned 15 while she was in detention; camp officials denied her a birthday party. Merkley said officials told him they would consider allowing birthday parties for any child in detention, but they chose later not to do so.

"Imprisonment itself is traumatic. All the child experts have weighed in and said this does enormous harm to people," he said. "Children belong in homes, schools and playgrounds, not behind barbed wire."

Inspector general reports from two federal agencies, one on July 2 and the other Sept. 4, confirmed squalid conditions in overcrowded camps and trauma to children housed in them.

PMG PHOTO BY PETER WONG - U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., adjusts his microphone during an appearance Aug. 26 at Revolution Hall in Portland sponsored by Powell's Books. At right is Laural Porter, anchor for Portland television station KGW who asked questions of Merkley.Family lockups

Although Trump made a big show of ending his own administration's child-separation policy just weeks after Merkley's initial visit to Texas in June 2018 — and the subsequent public outcry — the administration has adhered to a family-imprisonment policy he ordered. A federal judge decided Friday, Sept. 27, to uphold a court settlement more than 20 years old barring families and children from being held in federal custody indefinitely.

On one of his trips to the southern border, Merkley was accompanied by Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono, whose mother left her son behind when she emigrated from Japan.

"She said this was like one of the internment camps," where more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans were imprisoned during World War II, when the U.S. fought Japan.

"I want people to understand that this is about locking up families. The goal of this administration is to lock them up for a long time, because immigration proceedings can last awhile."

Merkley said asylum seekers prior to the Trump administration were allowed to show up at hearings conducted by immigration judges within the Justice Department — and virtually all did so without having to be in prison.

"What I am arguing for is decency and respect for people who are fleeing persecution," he said, not more lenient policies. "Most will not win asylum. There is a burden of proof that is hard to establish. But there is absolutely no reason to mistreat people deliberately. That does not even work as a deterrent strategy.

"If you are going to be killed on the weekend and you flee beforehand, you worry about what happens on the border later."

Fateful 2018 visit

Although Merkley was the first member of Congress to step directly into the dispute in mid-2018, he said he had just begun reading about the "zero-tolerance" policy for border-crossers outlined in a press release by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who then described it a month later in a talk to U.S. attorneys.

"I was absolutely sure they would never do anything like that," he said. "No American administration would traumatize children as a political strategy. Someone on my team told me one way to find out was to go down there — and I said she was absolutely right."

His first stop on his June 3, 2018, visit was a Customs and Border Protection detention center in McAllen, Texas, part of the Department of Homeland Security. The children he saw were in 30x30 chain-link cages.

"As you stood in front of the cage with boys, you could get a look through the layers of chain-link fence and see them looking around," he recalled. "Were they trying to get the last glimpse of their parents or sisters and not knowing whether they will ever see them again?"

He asked reporters across the street what they had seen, but they had been barred from entry.

His next stop was at Casa Padre detention center in Brownsville, Texas, housed in a former Walmart building run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the Department of Health and Human Services. His staff had sought advance permission, without result, for him to visit.

"I thought I would just knock on the door anyway, because I could get the supervisor to come out and talk with me — and maybe he would say he could show me around," he said. "It did not work that way."

The supervisor summoned local police, who arrived to escort Merkley from the camp.

But Merkley posted his visit live on Facebook — and the video caused the story to take off.

As part of Merkley's investigation, he visited a camp in Tijuana, Mexico — Trump's policy calls for would-be asylum seekers from Central America to apply first in Mexico — as well as the Morrison Center in Portland and the federal prison in Sheridan, where some migrants had been detained. Merkley also visited Central America, where he had spent time almost four decades earlier.

"Those refugees and children have been on my mind — maybe more so because I have worked in villages in Mexico and been an exchange student in Africa," he said.

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