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Sen. Merkley Condemns Trump’s War Against Migrant Families as U.S. Moves to Indefinitely Jail Kids

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The Trump administration is moving to indefinitely detain migrant children and their families, reversing decades of U.S. policy. The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services is expected to issue a new rule today to withdraw from a 1997 federal court settlement known as the Flores agreement, which put a 20-day limit on migrant family detentions. We speak with Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley, who made headlines last year when he was barred from entering an old Walmart where the government was detaining about 1,500 immigrant children in Brownsville, Texas.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The Trump administration is moving to indefinitely detain migrant children and their families, reversing decades of U.S. policy. The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services is expected to issue a new rule today to withdraw from a 1997 federal court settlement known as the Flores agreement, which put a 20-day limit on migrant family detentions. If the administration’s new rule goes into effect, migrant children could be jailed for months, and even years, while their immigration cases are heard. On Wednesday, acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said the new rule would serve as a deterrent to keep immigrants from coming to the United States.

ACTING DHS SECRETARY KEVIN McALEENAN: No child should be a pawn in a scheme to manipulate our immigration system, which is why the new rule eliminates the incentive to exploit children as a free ticket, or, as one gentleman in Guatemala told me, a passport for migration to the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: The proposed rule change has drawn intense condemnation from immigrant rights groups and human rights organizations. Amnesty International tweeted, “This is more than cruel. It’s beyond logic and humanity,” they said.

We’re joined today by Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, who has become a leading critic of Trump’s immigration policy. Last year, he made headlines after he was barred from entering an old Walmart where the government was detaining around 1,500 immigrant children in Brownsville, Texas. Senator Merkley writes about the experience in a new book, America Is Better Than This: Trump’s War Against Migrant Families.

Senator Merkley, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Thank you. Great to be with you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Congratulations on your first book. I want to go to what’s happening today, the Flores agreement and the Trump administration saying they’re going to end it. Explain what this means and what you plan to do about it as a U.S. senator.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Well, the Flores settlement agreement is about basic rules for treating children decently, in a humanitarian style, meaning nutrition, healthcare, just the ability to have bedding and hygiene. It’s just the basics of how you would want anyone treated. And this administration has absolutely been inflicting trauma on children as a strategy to deter immigration. And such a strategy goes in direct conflict with the Flores agreement. So, here is the president of the United States a few weeks ago saying we’re not going to let kids outside to play soccer, then saying we’re not going to give flu shots, even though three refugee children have died of flu, and flu can move very quickly through those very crowded holding cells. This is an administration that appealed a rule that you had to provide soap and bedding to children.

AMY GOODMAN: And toothbrushes and toothpaste.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: And toothbrushes. I mean, the idea that you’re going to force children to sleep on very cold holding cells’ concrete floors, lights on all at night, and then proceed to ship them through a gulag, basically child prisons. They had 15,000 migrant children held in these facilities in December of last year. It’s a shocking development for America to be in the business of deliberately harming children. And that’s why we have to fight it.

So, here we have the Flores agreement, and the administration says, “Well, we want to make sure we can imprison children indefinitely.” And I just think, “Who in the world says we want to imprison children indefinitely?” And they want to be outside of state licensing, and they want to be outside of state supervision. And we know where they’re headed when they’re outside of supervision, because they’ve demonstrated it time and time again. So, that is why this is so important. The key piece is that Flores says you can only hold children in a nonstate-licensed facility for three days under normal terms, five days if they come from a remote area, or 20 days during a big influx. This would bust that down so they could hold children for years.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you tweeted Wednesday the Trump administration is now suspending virtually all asylum claims processing for the region served by Newark and Boston offices. You say there are over 40,000 cases pending in these offices.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Yes. So, this was a development where people within that office forwarded an email that laid out the policy. It’s an internal policy that they’re shifting people off those 40,000 cases. In one sector, they say completely shutting down new cases; the other, they said there would be very few new cases. I was attacked by a member of the administration for spreading false information. I simply was reporting what was in the administration’s email as to their plans. This means thousands and thousands of people will have their proceedings suspended.

AMY GOODMAN: We just came from the Arizona border, the Arizona-Mexico border, on Monday. We were there in Sonora and Nogales and learned about the metering firsthand and the number of people who are coming through the border, allowed to come through now, around six to eight, if they are lucky, a day, with thousands waiting. People in Mexico, who are stopped in Mexico, are living in the graveyards. They’re homeless. They’re fleeing gang violence, afraid their kids will be kidnapped as they stay there. Is this legal? As President Trump talks about “illegal” immigrants and talks about invasion, are these actions legal?

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: So, the president says, “I don’t want people crossing between ports of entry. Come to the ports of entry.” And this has been something Jeff Sessions said when he was attorney general and others in the administration said: “Just come to the ports of entry.” But at the port of entry, the administration has erected a blockade. I first witnessed this on the bridge down in Hidalgo-Reynosa border crossing, our border guards across the middle of the bridge, blocking anyone from coming across who didn’t have a passport — in other words, anyone who was a refugee.

The result is that families are stranded, as you’re saying, on the Mexican side of the border. And that means without funds, without family, without friends. They’re incredibly vulnerable. There are gangs that prey upon them. And now the administration has created this system where they have an informal accounting called the book. And the book is sometimes run by drug gangs. It’s run in all kinds of different ways. But it is essentially, you have to register in this unofficial book and wait for your number to be called. And so it’s another form of exploitation.

But it’s all in contravention of the vision of the Refugee Convention, because the Refugee Convention is, if you are fleeing persecution and you knock on our door, we will give you safe harbor while we examine your case. That’s what an asylum case is. In this case, we’re saying, “We will not give you safe harbor. Sorry, you’re stuck in Mexico. Good luck. Maybe in a few months we’ll talk to you.” And it puts enormous people at risk.

It makes me think of the St. Louis. you norm is people at risk. It makes me think of the St. Louis. The St. Louis was a ship in World War II that had some 900-plus refugees from Germany. It came. It wasn’t allowed to dock in the United States. The result is, it eventually went back to Germany, and about a fourth of those refugees died in the Holocaust. We are, in this case, stranding people who are knocking on our door in very, very difficult circumstances.

AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly, that was during FDR’s administration. A bipartisan immigration problem we’ve had for decades. We’re going to continue with Jeff Merkley, Democratic senator from Oregon, member of the Appropriations, Environment and Public Works, Budget, and Foreign Relations Committees. His new book is called America Is Better Than This: Trump’s War Against Migrant Families. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Cumbia Campanera” by legendary Mexican cumbia musician Celso Piña. Piña is a self-taught accordionist who began performing in the ’70s. Over the years, he became known as the “accordion rebel,” as his distinctive take on cumbia blended hip-hop, rock and northern Mexican rhythms. Celso Piña died of a heart attack Wednesday in his home city of Monterrey. He was 66 years old.

This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue to cover the Trump administration’s move to indefinitely jail migrant children and their families. We’re speaking to Oregon Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley. In June of 2018, the senator made headlines after he was barred from entering a former Walmart in Brownsville, Texas, where the government was jailing about 1,500 children. Operators of the Southwest Key facility called the police on the U.S. senator.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: I haven’t been asked to leave the property, but I’m guessing that’s about what’s to happen.

POLICE OFFICER: Yeah, sir, I think that’s what they’re going towards. What was your name again, sir? I’m sorry. Senator…?

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Senator Jeff Merkley.


SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley.



POLICE OFFICER: How do you spell it, sir? I don’t want to misspell it.








POLICE OFFICER: And your date of birth, sir?

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Yeah, it’s October 24th.


SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: 24th, 1956.

POLICE OFFICER: 1956. And you said you’re a U.S. senator?

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: I’m a U.S. senator.


SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Yes. And U.S. policy is involved right now with children — are you familiar with this policy?

POLICE OFFICER: No, negative. Actually, this is not something that we specifically deal with. You know what I’m saying?


POLICE OFFICER: But it was just, just so I can ID and advice my sergeant that you’re here.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Yeah. Well, we won’t — we won’t take up their time —


SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: — anymore, but I think it’s important for you all to be aware that — this has been in the press, all over the country — that the children, who were previously kept with their families, under a new policy just implemented by the attorney general, are being separated from their families and warehoused here.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Jeff Merkley trying to investigate a facility that’s jailed 1,500 children. This is in Brownsville, Texas. It’s the local Walmart. Explain why you went there. And what happened, Senator?

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Well, just hours before this, I had gone to a CBP, Customs and Border Protection, processing center. And to my knowledge, I’m the first member of Congress who was in and then witnessed that children were in fact being separated from their parents and put into these big chainlink cages in a warehouse. I was absolutely stunned by the experience. The press had not been in there. It was the consequence of Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump’s zero — I call it “zero humanity,” they call it “zero tolerance” policy. It was a strategy of inflicting pain on children in order to deter immigration.

And I heard from activists that many of these children had been stuffed into this former Walmart up in Brownsville. And I had asked for permission to go and had been turned away in advance. And I thought, “Well, I’ll go knock on their door anyway, because if it really has hundreds of children, they have a lot of people working there. Maybe the supervisor will show me around.” So, as you witnessed there, I knocked on the door and actually called up the supervisor from outside on my cellphone. And I was told by the assistant that he would come out and talk to me. And he didn’t come, and I called back. And, “Oh, yeah, he’s coming.” He was waiting for the police to arrive.

When I saw the police cars arriving, I thought, “OK, this is going to get interesting. I’ve never been handcuffed. I’ve never been slammed to the ground. But it may be about to happen.” It didn’t. They were actually fairly — the police you saw — the police were fairly gracious.

But the point was that the administration did not want anyone, even members of Congress, to see what was going on. They didn’t want the press in. Because of that event, the press did get in. And two weeks later, I led a congressional delegation that got in. I had heard there were hundreds of boys, maybe a thousand. It turned out that that was an underestimation. There were almost 1,500 boys placed into that single building.

AMY GOODMAN: We went, soon after you, to this Southwest Key, to this Walmart, where they had walled off all of the — they papered over the windows, whatever windows there were. And we tried to get in, and they immediately threatened to arrest us if we dared to walk even into the parking lot.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Yeah, it — fortunately, the press got in and was able to describe what was going on. I was struck by — they had built 300 bedrooms, little tiny bedrooms. They had proceeded to have 300 boys, just months earlier, and expanded of 1,500, five cots per little bedroom. They didn’t — they were like, “Oh, well, come see our soccer field.” And I’m thinking, “How long does it take 1,500 boys to rotate through a soccer field?”

And I said to the head of the Southwest Key, I said, “You expanded so dramatically. What were you lacking?” He said, “Mental health counselors.” I said, “How many are you short?” He said, “Ninety.” And I said, “This shows there was no planning, no consideration.” These are kids traumatized abroad, traumatized en route, ripped away from their parents, traumatized here in the United States of America. And they hadn’t planned to be able to hire any sort of mental health counselors. And so, this just shows the — both the incompetence and the callousness of this administration deliberately inflicting harm on children.

If it happened anywhere else, Amy, anywhere else in the world, we would be doing resolutions in Congress. We would be taking it to the U.N. Human Rights Commission. We would be boycotting. We would be saying, “Never, never would this happen in America.” It’s happening here right now.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you’ve introduced the Stop Cruelty to Migrant Children Act, co-sponsored by the New York Senator Chuck Schumer. What is it? And how are you going to stop President Trump?

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Yes, 40 Democrats have sponsored it. We haven’t been able to get a single Republican on it. It starts, and it says you cannot repel children at the border and leave them stranded. You cannot hold them in inhumane conditions in these holding cells. You have to provide all the basics. You cannot lock them up in an extended period in these influx facilities, which so far have been exempt from the Flores settlement agreement. So, whereas Flores says you’ve got to move them to state-licensed within three days, many children have been held an average of two months in these influx facilities. It says you get a lawyer and you get a case worker, so that you can actually get your immigration case processed in a timely fashion and assistance how to negotiate this complex system. It facilitates the movement so that you can be in a home and a school and a playground, which is where children belong, not behind barbed wire, as your case is proceeding.

AMY GOODMAN: Also talk about your trip to Tijuana.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Yeah, so, I wanted to see what this all looked like from the Mexican side of the border. And there are some 30 facilities in Tijuana where refugees are crowded in. Different humanitarian groups have set up houses. I went to seven of them. One of them was the size of a conference room, a modest-sized conference room. Seventeen families were living in that one room, four sets of bunk beds along the walls, nine mattresses on the floor. And I just feel that the woman who ran it was such an angel, because she was trying to give people space to get off the street, where they’re so incredibly vulnerable.

But these are folks caught up in the metering system, waiting what at that time was about six weeks. Now it’s longer. And children, unaccompanied children, were not even allowed to get into the metering book — the book — this big registry that’s laid out every morning, run theoretically by other refugees. In fact, it’s a way for both the Mexican government and the American government to dodge responsibility, because this is probably a direct violation of the Refugee Convention.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you also visited the Homestead child prison in Florida. That’s where a lot of the Democratic presidential candidates went, because their debate in Miami wasn’t faraway. And one after another went there and decried this facility. You spoke with a number of children there. Now, this is the place that the former White House chief of staff for President Trump, John Kelly, has now joined the board of its owner, Caliburn’s board. You mention in your book the conflict of interest here.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Yes. John Kelly, before he went to the administration, was on the board and paid. And within a few weeks of joining the administration, he was advocating for child separation and detention, and which would be, of course, of great profit to this for-profit prison. They are paid, on a noncompete contract, around $750 to $775 a day per child. It is a vast amount of money. And it is corrupt because it basically incentivizes the imprisonment of children rather than their movement —

AMY GOODMAN: Say again. Each child, $750 a day?

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Seven hundred and fifty dollars a day. So, if they can keep —

AMY GOODMAN: And they’re stopping kids from going to be with family or other supervisors that family has approved.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Yes. They have no incentive, obviously, to have the case workers or the field workers to set up the transition to a family setting for these children. This is something ugly and terrible. And then, after Kelly left the administration, they put him right back on the board in a paid board position for Caliburn, which is the new incarnation of the company that owns, owns or operates, this for-profit prison.

Now, it is — right now it has been emptied out. It is hurricane season. I called up the head of Homestead, because I had heard from other advocates that just a Category 2 hurricane would put a six-foot wave through it. I asked if they had a plan. They said they did, to move the children out in case of a hurricane. I heard from everyone else they didn’t. They decided to empty out the facility for now, but they’re keeping it ready to put children back in.

The contract, in theory, ends in November. And this is a point all Americans should say, “Shut down this for-profit prison. Do not renew this contract, this corrupt imprisonment-of-children contract.”

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Merkley, the book, America Is Better Than This, begins with the mother and daughter from Guatemala, Albertina and Yakelin Contreras. You brought Albertina and Yakelin to the State of the Union this year. Talk about who they are.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Yeah, so, they were early victims of child separation, caught totally unaware. Yakelin, who was 11 years old, watched her mother be led away in shackles. They were separated for two months, and it wasn’t until a court, in June of 2018, shut down child separation that the mother was freed. And then she couldn’t find her daughter. She got help, eventually got her daughter released and returned to her. The administration opposed it, tried to block it. She had to go to court. And finally, when her daughter was flown into Tennessee, the whole community group came out and welcomed her.

It was on the day of the State of the Union that Yakelin turned 12 years old. It was her 12th birthday. And she is the most charming young girl, so excited about life forward. And I asked her, “If you had anything you could say, if you could talk to the president of the United States, what would you say?” She said, “Mr. President, end this most cruel law.” I thought those were the best way to describe what the administration is doing: “this most cruel law.” And so I titled the prologue after that.

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