Democratic lawmakers joined protesters in a demonstration Saturday in the border town of Tornillo, Texas, where about 2,700 young immigrants are currently being held in a detention center—with some having languished there for months.
The facility is better described as a "child prison," said the legislators, including Reps. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas) and Judy Chu (D-Calif.), Rep.-elect Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), and Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii).
I’m at #tornillo w @BetoORourke @SenJeffMerkley @maziehirono @TinaSmithMN. We must #shutdowntornillo — this is a child prison. Children, no matter where they’re from, should not be treated this way. pic.twitter.com/2nO1rhgZjE
— Judy Chu (@RepJudyChu) December 15, 2018
The delegation wasn't able to talk extensively to any of the children, O'Rourke said.
"We asked them about the conditions and they kind of nodded their heads, 'It's okay,' but what are they going to say when everyone around them is watching?" he said. "But there was something in the look on their faces, that we saw the way they weren't really engaged."
"We cannot forget the children that are being held in U.S. government prisons for having the audacity to seek refuge in the arms of America." —Rep.-elect Veronica Escobar (D-Texas)The center opened last summer and was intended to be a facility where children who had arrived in the U.S. without parents or guardians—or who had been separated from their parents by the Trump administration—would stay for just 30 days before being released to U.S.-based family members who could sponsor them.
But as O'Rourke told the crowd outside the center, many of the children have been there for months thanks to the Trump administration's new rules requiring all sponsors to pass background checks before they can retrieve children.
"No place is going to be right unless it is with their parents or their families," said the former Senate candidate, who is giving up his seat in the House at the end of the year. "This facility is open because this administration has decided that those family members who can sponsor these kids and have them in their homes right now, and take care of them and help them be well and get back on their feet, are going through onerous background checks which have produced 170 apprehensions."
An update on Tornillo after this morning's tour: 2,700 kids are now being kept inside the camp that was originally opened for 360. Some have been there since summer. pic.twitter.com/B9AH7HeuMv
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More than 100 of the family members who have been arrested by immigration authorities, which is communicating with law enforcement agencies about the background checks, had no criminal background, according to O'Rourke. The system has also prevented many family members from coming forward to claim children, said Hirono.
"It has a chilling effect on sponsors coming forward because this information, and many of the sponsors are undocumented, is shared with [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and what ICE does is deport people," the senator said.
1400 kids could be released immediately if the Trump Administration changed its fingerprinting policy. Sponsors are afraid to come forward for fear that their legal status will be investigated by #ICE. #Tornillo
— Judy Chu (@RepJudyChu) December 15, 2018
"When we take over the House on January 3rd, I want to make sure that one of the first things we do is have a hearing on this situation," Chu said. "The American public doesn't know how outrageous this is."
The group was able to tour the overcrowded facility after setting up their visit weeks in advance in a system that Democrats have derided and which Merkley hopes to change with legislation that would allow lawmakers easy access to detention centers in order to provide oversight.
The Tornillo facility is "in a remote location on purpose so that the American people do not know what it happening here," said O'Rourke.
Escobar also called out the corporate media for failing to cover the conditions in which thousands of children are being held in U.S. custody for months on end.
"It's all about the 24-hour news cycle, it's all about the next piece of information, it's all about the next scandal coming from the White House," Escobar said. "While we have to pay attention to all of that, we cannot forget the children that are being held in U.S. government prisons for having the audacity to seek refuge in the arms of America."