INSIGHT: Senator turned away from old Walmart in Texas housing immigrants’ kids

As the sun set Sunday night, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., went to a shuttered Walmart in Brownsville that has been converted into a detention center for immigrant children who have been separated from their parents. He asked for a tour. Instead, the government contractor that runs the converted store called the cops. An officer filled out a police report, and the senator was asked to leave.

The half-hour incident at a strip mall near the southern border with Mexico underscores the lack of transparency from President Donald Trump’s administration about its intensifying efforts to break up undocumented families caught crossing the border, the centerpiece of a “zero tolerance” policy announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions last month to deter illegal immigration.

Merkley said he tried to go through proper channels to arrange a site visit but was rebuffed. The senator said he’s also sought to figure out just how many kids are being held at the old Walmart, where the parking lot is packed with employee cars, but he cannot get a straight answer. Merkley sees the new policy as a moral stain on America, and he’s determined not to let it slip from public consciousness. So, he staged a public confrontation. A staffer live-streamed the whole thing on Facebook.

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“I think it’s unacceptable that a member of Congress is not being admitted to see what’s happening to children whose families are applying for asylum,” Merkley said. “Can you imagine? You come to this strange land… . You’re seeking asylum, and the first thing that happens when you get here is you’re torn away from your parents? … America has never done this before! … The intention is to hurt the children, cause the children trauma and discourage people from seeking asylum in the United States of America.”

Trump’s policy may split up an untold number of families. Minors are not allowed in criminal jails, where adults are held when they’re charged with crimes related to crossing the border. Children are sent to separate facilities, which are overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement. This happens even if their folks present themselves at official ports of entry and declare that they are seeking asylum.

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Southwest Key Programs, a nonprofit, administers this facility and 26 other shelters for unaccompanied immigrant children across Texas, Arizona and California. Its website refers all questions to HHS. The press office for the children and families division at HHS, which the resettlement office is part of, did not respond to a call and email seeking comment overnight. “If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally,” Sessions said last month. “It’s not our fault that somebody does that.”

Merkley’s visit to the site was Kabuki theater tailor-made to go viral on social media and feed progressive activists the sort of red meat they are so hungry for in this tumultuous era. Wearing blue jeans and a dress shirt that was half-tucked in with rolled up sleeves, Merkley called a phone number that was posted at the entrance. He put the woman who answered on speaker and asked for a supervisor to come out. He told her his personal cellphone number. He called back a few minutes later when no one had come.

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Only after two police officers arrived on the scene did the supervisor emerge from a blacked-out sliding door. He gave the senator the phone number for the HHS press office. “So, you guys can just call that number,” the supervisor said. “That’s the number we were told to give to you guys.”

One of the cops approached Merkley. “I haven’t been asked to leave the property, but I’m guessing that’s about what’s to happen,” the senator said.

“Yes, sir, I think that’s what they’re going towards,” the officer replied. “What was your name again?”

“Senator Jeff Merkley. U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley,” he said.

“How do you spell that? I don’t want to misspell that,” the cop asked.

“M-e-r-k-l-e-y,” the senator said.

The cop asked for his date of birth.

“It’s October 24, 1956,” Merkley replied. “I’m a U.S. senator.”

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Wearing a lapel microphone, Merkley narrated what was happening. The sound quality is poor because of the wind, and the video quality is poor because of the bright sun. But that made the stunt seem more raw and authentic. As the camera rolled, Merkley spoke about how a picture is worth a thousand words, which is why they don’t want visuals from inside. “I think this is part of a strategy to prevent the public and our decision-makers from seeing what’s really going on,” he said. “These doors are closed right now, which I think is symbolic of what the administration is doing.”

Merkley, 61, also stopped by the Border Patrol’s station and visited with asylum seekers at the Sacred Heart Church Respite Center in McAllen. He was accompanied by local officials from the American Civil Liberties Union.

“For months, stories have abounded of families separated by immigration authorities at the border: Three children were separated from their mother as they fled a gang in El Salvador; a 7-year-old was taken from her Congolese mother who was seeking asylum; and so on, in reportedly hundreds of cases. In almost every case, the families have described heart-wrenching goodbyes and agonizing uncertainty about whether they would be reunited,” The Post’s Amy B. Wang noted last week.

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Finally, the supervisor asked Merkley to leave and he complied. As he left, the senator said the contractor should really rethink the work it is doing for the government “with these children being ripped out of their parents’ arms.”

“American citizens are funding this operation, so every American citizen has a stake in how these children are being treated and how this policy is being enacted,” Merkley said.

Flanked by palm trees and a McDonalds’s golden arch in the background, he recapped everything that had just happened. “With that, I’ll just call it over and out,” he said.

Hohmann is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post. Breanne Deppisch and Joanie Greve contributed to this report.

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