Court-ap­pointed mon­i­tor says chil­dren be­ing treated well in fa­cil­ity

The Washington Times Daily - - METRO - BY STEPHEN DI­NAN

Sen. Jeff Merkley up­ended the im­mi­gra­tion de­bate ear­lier this month after he vis­ited a bor­der de­ten­tion fa­cil­ity in Texas and de­scribed mal­treated chil­dren stowed in dog ken­nels, sub­jected to “trauma” by the fed­eral govern­ment.

But a court-ap­pointed com­pli­ance mon­i­tor vis­ited the same fa­cil­ity weeks ear­lier and gave a much dif­fer­ent por­trayal, de­scrib­ing chil­dren snack­ing on ap­ples, drink­ing milk and bot­tled wa­ter, and sit­ting around watching movies on tele­vi­sion.

Far from trauma, the chil­dren said they got show­ers, brushed their teeth, got a change of clothes and were able to get some sleep on bed mats. They had a chance to call rel­a­tives, to speak with con­sular of­fi­cials from their home coun­tries, and to take needed med­i­ca­tions.

And while some of them com­plained about the tem­per­a­ture in the hold­ing rooms, but the com­pli­ance of­fi­cer said it was a steady 72.5 de­grees, which is within the range al­lowed by the judge.

Henry A. Moak Jr., the chief ac­count­abil­ity of­fi­cer for U.S. Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion, said dur­ing his April visit he even tried the wa­ter from the five-gal­lon jugs, used an in­frared ther­mome­ter to take the tem­per­a­ture, and peeked into the laun­dry fa­cil­i­ties to see the chil­dren’s own clothes be­ing washed.

“I also ob­served sev­eral tele­vi­sions through­out the fa­cil­ity to pro­vide en­ter­tain­ment for the mi­nors. When I first ar­rived, I saw sev­eral mi­nors watching a movie,” he said in a re­port to Judge Dolly M. Gee, who or­dered reg­u­lar checks to de­ter­mine whether the govern­ment is pro­vid­ing ad­e­quate care to the chil­dren de­tained by Home­land Se­cu­rity. Mr. Moak’s con­clu­sion: They are. His re­port, filed with Judge Gee on June 1, stands in stark con­trast to what Mr. Merkley saw when he vis­ited the same fa­cil­ity two days later, de­scrib­ing over­crowded con­di­tions he said amounted to treat­ing the chil­dren like an­i­mals.

“I wit­nessed some­thing that is now seared into my mind: a large ware­house fa­cil­ity with cells con­structed of fence posts and chain link fenc­ing — like dog ken­nels or large cages,” the sen­a­tor said in an email writ­ten for a lib­eral pres­sure group this week.

Mr. Merkley saw the food and wa­ter, the show­ers, clean clothes and san­i­tary sup­plies, ar­ranged on shelves around the out­side of the mas­sive ware­hous­es­tyle fa­cil­ity.

But he was struck by the chain-link fenc­ing that di­vided the ware­house into cells, with the fenc­ing even cov­er­ing the ceil­ings and a concrete floor be­low. Chil­dren slept on pads with my­lar blan­kets.

In one telling de­tail the chil­dren’s shoelaces had been taken away. Some of them had torn the my­lar blan­kets into strips and tried to turn those into laces.

The treat­ment of the chil­dren is a heated topic of de­bate right now, as the govern­ment faces a new surge of what author­i­ties call “Un­ac­com­pa­nied Alien Chil­dren,” or UAC — ju­ve­niles who ar­rive at the bor­der with­out par­ents.

Bor­der Pa­trol agents nabbed more than 6,400 UAC in May alone, which is a four-fold in­crease com­pared to May 2017.

The prob­lem is even more acute now given the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s zero-tol­er­ance pol­icy for bor­der jumpers. Un­der that pol­icy adults who try to sneak into the U.S. are be­ing pros­e­cuted crim­i­nally, mean­ing they go to jail — and their chil­dren, who can’t fol­low them to jail, are sep­a­rated and be­come UAC.

Im­mi­grant-rights ac­tivists and Democrats in Congress have ve­he­mently ob­jected to the zero-tol­er­ance pol­icy, say­ing it in­flicts trauma on both par­ents and chil­dren who get sep­a­rated.

It’s also likely added more peo­ple to the sys­tem, leav­ing the de­ten­tion fa­cil­i­ties over­whelmed at the time Mr. Merkley vis­ited.

“This child-snatch­ing has to end, and it has to end im­me­di­ately,” Mr. Merkley told re­porters Tues­day as he threw his sup­port be­hind a bill that would out­law most in­stances of par­ent-child sep­a­ra­tion by Home­land Se­cu­rity. “It is a dark scar on the heart of this ad­min­is­tra­tion and the heart of our na­tion.”

Mr. Merkley vis­ited CPC-Ur­sula, the govern­ment’s most ac­tive bor­der fa­cil­ity for chil­dren, at the be­gin­ning of this month.

In ad­di­tion to the crowded “dog ken­nel” cells, he de­scribed chil­dren lin­ing up for meal­time, with the lit­tlest boy “knee-high to a grasshop­per” at per­haps four or five years old. Mr. Merkley said he didn’t know whether the boy came to the U.S. with­out par­ents or was sep­a­rated once here be­cause of crim­i­nal charges, but said the vi­sion was “seared into my mind.”

“This just goes be­yond any­thing I could imag­ine. It’s morally bank­rupt, it’s wrong on every level,” he said of fam­ily sep­a­ra­tions.

He also said while at Ur­sula, he asked whether the chil­dren could call their par­ents. The agent in charge said it was easy. He said he doubts that.

But Mr. Moak, who dur­ing his April visit to Ur­sula in­ter­viewed 13 chil­dren, said two brothers and a sister, all teens from Hon­duras, said they’d been in the fa­cil­ity for less than 48 hours and had al­ready been able to call a fam­ily mem­ber and to speak to the Hon­duran con­sulate.

And where Mr. Merkley said the chil­dren were kept in “cages,” Mr. Moak called them “hold­ing rooms.”

Ac­cord­ing to pho­tos from sev­eral years ago, the fa­cil­ity is a large ware­house-sized room with fence-style di­viders sep­a­rat­ing one area from an­other, so it’s pos­si­ble both de­scrip­tions are ac­cu­rate.

There were some com­plaints about the fa­cil­ity in Mr. Moak’s re­port, such as mi­grants who thought the 72-de­gree tem­per­a­ture was too cold. He chalked that up to cul­ture shock, say­ing it’s likely that they weren’t used to air con­di­tion­ing.

Home­land Se­cu­rity spokes­woman Katie Wald­man said Mr. Moak’s re­port should counter some of the ac­cu­sa­tions be­ing lobbed at the govern­ment.

“The re­cent in­spec­tion at Bor­der Pa­trol fa­cil­i­ties — in­clud­ing the fa­cil­ity vis­ited by Sen. Merkley — proves that DHS is not only abid­ing by the let­ter of law but main­tains a high stan­dard care for in­di­vid­u­als in our cus­tody,” she said. “DHS takes this re­spon­si­bil­ity ex­tremely se­ri­ously and as shown in this re­port is in com­pli­ance with court or­ders and statute — any im­pli­ca­tion to the con­trary by mem­bers of Congress is fac­tu­ally in­cor­rect.”

Treat­ment of UAC is govern­ment both by fed­eral law and by a 1990s-era court agree­ment known as the Flores Set­tle­ment. That rul­ing was up­dated un­der the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion by a fed­eral judge in Cal­i­for­nia, Judge Gee, who ruled the govern­ment was mal­treat­ing chil­dren by hold­ing them too long in Home­land Se­cu­rity fa­cil­i­ties, and putting them through rough con­di­tions.

She or­dered im­prove­ments and tasked Mr. Moak with mak­ing sure the govern­ment is com­ply­ing at the bor­der, and asked Dean Dougherty, the ju­ve­nile co­or­di­na­tor for U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment, to re­port back on what hap­pens to the chil­dren when they’re in ICE cus­tody, which usu­ally means with their par­ents.

He said more than 70 per­cent of them were re­leased within 20 days, which was the stan­dard Judge Gee set. Mr. Dougherty said he re­viewed each of the other 2,000 cases and, in each in­stance, found there were ex­ten­u­at­ing cir­cum­stances that jus­ti­fied the pro­longed stay.

Once chil­dren are re­leased from CBP or ICE cus­tody they are ei­ther im­me­di­ately sent to live with rel­a­tives or head to dorms run by the fed­eral Health De­part­ment’s Office of Refugee Re­set­tle­ment.

Mr. Merkley, in his vis­its ear­lier this month, also tried to get in to see one of those ORR fa­cil­i­ties, but was de­nied. Of­fi­cials said their poli­cies, which pre­date the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and are in place to pro­tect chil­dren’s pri­vacy, re­quire a lengthy ad­vance no­tice.

Mr. Merkley said he’s writ­ing leg­is­la­tion that would give mem­bers of Congress the right to con­duct sur­prise in­spec­tions.

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