U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley has praised President Joe Biden's latest executive order that seeks to reunite children separated from their migrant families at the border with Mexico under a now-revoked policy instituted by former President Donald Trump.
The Oregon Democrat drew national attention to that "zero-tolerance" policy for unauthorized border crossings on June 3, 2018, during his own visit to the Texas-Mexico border. An estimated 5,500 families were separated between July 2017 and June 2018.
Biden's Feb. 2 order sets up a task force to aid efforts to reunite 1,000 children with their families, many parents having been deported to their home countries. Lawyers working on those efforts estimate that 500 children still have not been located.
"I'm gratified that the Biden administration is bringing moral clarity and urgency to the task of reuniting every family that was separated," Merkley said in his own statement.
"I look forward to continuing to work with the president and his newly-formed task force to ensure that these reunifications come to fruition and am calling on Congress to fully meet any anticipated funding needs immediately to avoid any further delays in reuniting and caring for traumatized children and families."
Merkley has said his curiosity was piqued by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions' reference to the zero-tolerance policy, and one of Merkley's aides suggested he check it out for himself.
Merkley's first stop on his 2018 visit was to a Customs and Border Protection detention center in McAllen, Texas, part of the Department of Homeland Security. The children he saw were in 30-by-30 chain-link cages.
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 warehouse and 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.
He never got inside. He did encounter a supervisor, who summoned police to escort Merkley off the grounds.
But Merkley posted his visit live on Facebook — and the video caused the story to take off.
Merkley made six more visits to the border, plus trips to Mexico and Central America.
Merkley wrote a 2019 book, "America Is Better Than This: Trump's War Against Immigrant Families," detailing his experiences.
The full text of Merkley's Feb. 2 statement is below:
"I remember when my kids were small and playing outside, and the second of panic I'd feel if I turned around and didn't see them on the playground. Now imagine that trauma stretched out for months or years on end.
"For as long as I live, I will never forget the pain in the faces of the parents I spoke with whose children were taken from them, often in tears. They had no idea of where their kids were, if they had their medications or clean clothes or anyone to comfort them, or when they'd be together again. And I can't even bring myself to imagine the terror and sense of abandonment the children have experienced.
"Intentionally inflicting that kind of unspeakable trauma on parents and children is completely unforgivable. While we will never be able to erase the atrocities committed against families by the Trump administration, we have a responsibility to do everything we can to reunify the families that were ripped apart, provide victims with the legal support and trauma-informed health care they need and hold perpetrators accountable.
"I will also continue to push for the comprehensive, compassionate reforms we need to restore the asylum process and put critical health and safety provisions in place for the vulnerable men, women and children who are in our care. Anything less would be a morally reprehensible abdication of our responsibility to treat every human being with dignity and respect — and a failure to answer the American people's demand for change."
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