WASHINGTON — Two senators who visited the U.S. border with Mexico last weekend described a chaotic and confusing situation meant, in their estimation, to deter asylum seekers from nations like Honduras and El Salvador from accessing legal ports of entry.
Those asylum seekers consequently cross the border illegally, at which point they are apprehended, with children separated from parents, according to a new Trump administration policy. Wrenching images of detained children have resulted in bipartisan condemnation, even as President Trump has indicated the policy will remain in place. He has repeatedly and falsely blamed Democrats for the family separations.
Sens. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., visited several facilities on the border, where asylum seekers are processed and detained. In a press availability with journalists at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday afternoon, they accused Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen of deliberately “slow walking” the legal asylum process, which has all but come to a halt. The “zero tolerance” policy that accompanies illegal crossings, they charge, is equally capricious, intended to discourage immigrants from flocking to the southern U.S. border.
“It was absolutely clear we are slow walking, at the port of entry, the effort for individuals to seek asylum,” said Merkley. “Jeff Sessions has changed what qualifies as asylum,” he added. The attorney general, an early supporter of Trump’s presidential candidacy, has deemed domestic violence and gang warfare insufficient conditions for seeking asylum.
Merkley described the plight of one woman who arrived at a bridge over the Rio Grande that led to a port of entry in McAllen, Texas. A native of Honduras, she had fled because of drug-related violence, and had given birth on the way north. Like most asylum seekers, she was on foot. Recognizing that the wait on the Mexican side of the bridge was likely futile, the woman entered the roadway. Pretending to be a window-washer, the woman moved toward the port of entry on the American side of the bridge — a sign of her desperate desire to gain legal asylum, and of the measures she had to take to merely attain that possibility. Her fate is unclear. A staffer in Merkley’s office later said the woman has likely been separated from her newborn.
While family separation has received the most attention, Merkley and Van Hollen described a system where wanton cruelty is closely accompanied by what they called strategic inaction. Merkley said that in a meeting with 10 women who’d been detained at the Mexico border, there was “a general air of despair.” Only one had had any conversations with a lawyer, he said. In a visit to a holding facility in Oregon, Merkley found that “virtually none” of the 123 housed there had been offered legal representation.
“They had no idea of how this process was going to unfold,” Merkley said. The detained asylum seekers did not know whether they would get an asylum hearing, what the criminal consequences would be of having crossed the border illegally — and, perhaps most importantly, when they would see their children. Adding to the confusion is the fact that adults are processed by the Department of Homeland Security, while the Department of Health and Human Services deals with children. Immigration authorities had previously used a case-management system for processing some families; the Trump administration ended that practice.
All that added up to a grim scene, according to the two Democrats, who visited the border with some counterparts from the U.S. House of Representatives. “It did confirm my worst fears about what’s been reported,” Van Hollen said.
The two senators indicated that they were desperate to find a legislative fix that would be palatable both to conservative Republicans and the president himself. Trump has vacillated on what kind of bill he would ultimately sign. He has reportedly been fixated on receiving $25 billion from Congress to build his long-promised border wall, a project he said during the campaign that Mexico would fully fund.
Yet the two Democrats also bristled at what they charged was Trump using the images from the border to pressure Congress into resolving the immigration quagmire. “The notion of using these kids as leverage” in the debate over immigration legislation, Van Hollen said, is “despicable.” Both Democrats support the Keep Families Together Act, introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. So do the the rest of the Democrats in the Senate. Republicans, however, have their own proposals, including the Protect Kids and Parents Act, being pushed by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
The White House, meanwhile, has generally stood by its harsh new tactics, even as social media channels and cable news networks have published shocking accounts of families being separated.
“When you are prosecute the parents for coming in illegally — which should happen — you have to take the children away,” Trump said Tuesday, while at the same time attempting to shift blame to Democrats for his own policy.
Merkley said he was unwilling to wait for the November election, in which Democrats could bludgeon their rivals over the unpopular border policy.
“This is not something that, ‘Oh, let’s adjudicate this in November,” he said. “No, let’s turn up the heat and end this right now.”
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