Congressional Democrats Tour Migrant Children Detention Facility in El Cajon, Denounce Separation From Parents

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Washington, June 18, 2018 | comments

“The United States should have a zero tolerance policy for the immoral treatment of children,” said Rep. Davis (CA-53), a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee whose district includes part of El Cajon. “We are a nation of values and we ask our men and women in uniform to defend those values every day. This policy is in no way consistent with those values.”
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San Diego Congressional members Susan Davis and Juan Vargas joined House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic members of the Hispanic Caucus in touring three local facilities holding child immigrants, including a fenced facility in EL Cajon with 65 migrant boys, 10 percent of whom were forcibly separated from their parents by the Trump administration’s new “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting all undocumented parents.  In the past six weeks, the federal government has acknowledged taking away over 2,000 children from parents at the border, including infants and toddlers.

“The United States should have a zero tolerance policy for the immoral treatment of children,” said Rep. Davis (CA-53), a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee whose district includes part of El Cajon. “We are a nation of values and we ask our men and women in uniform to defend those values every day. This policy is in no way consistent with those values.”

Davis adds, “As a social worker who practiced in medical and psychiatric settings, particularly focusing on children and families, I can say the profound trauma thee children are experiencing will cause immediate and long-lasting damage to them.”

She is cosponsor of House Resolution 927 to condemn the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy separating children from parents, an action now opposed by 67% of Americans according to a new CBS news poll, including 90% of Democrats, 66 percent of independents and 39% of Republicans. 

Davis and Vargas have indicated that unlike media touring the facility last week, who were forbidden to speak to the children, members of Congress did meet with the youngsters.  Davis has said she also met with some parents separated from their children as part of a fact-finding mission.

Local Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter issued a statement supporting the Trump administration "zero tolerance" policy.  "The amount of individuals with children coming to the border and either entering illegally or presenting themselves at a Port of Entry has increased significantly, more than doubling from previous years," he says. "The policy by the prior administration of simply providing a notice to appear and then releasing these individuals into the U.S. for a court date that is three years away is both irresponsible and unsustainable.  Additionally, the number of our Border Patrol agents are down, so these agents are trying to handle more with less. "

Hunter, who did not participate in the tour to check on the children's welfare, said Trump policies have not changed from prior administrations, a claim also made by the Trump administration but debunked by major media outlets. (Prior administrations did not imprison immigrants with children who crossed a border illegally unless other crimes were committed, and children were allowed to stay with parents pending hearings.) Hunter says would-be immigrants should seek asylum, a practice that is legal. 

But there have been reports that even some asylum seekers have recently been separated from their children.

Despite his view that all illegal immigrants should face legal enforcement, Hunter added, "There are changes in our immigration policy that definitely need to be made and when policies are presented that start with building a border wall, then I am willing to work with any of my colleagues, including Democrats, to resolve the ongoing situation as soon as possible.  It is my understanding that President Trump will be addressing the House GOP on this matter, I look forward to hearing more on what he has to say about the situation.”

Ammar Campa-Najjar, the Democrat running against Hunter, blasted Hunter’s comments on Twitter as “ the words of an out of touch, heartless politician. This isn’t a partisan issue, separating and caging children is wrong. This does nothing to make America safer,” he said, urging voters to remember Hunter’s remarks in November.

The Trump administration has stood by its policies, but issued conflicting and at times, misleading statements.  Department of  Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on Monday stated, “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border, period.” That statement is untrue, according to fact checks by multiple major media outlets and Attorney General Jeff Session's statements indicating that all parents who cross illegally with children can expect to have their children taken away.

President Donald Trump has claimed a law “Democrats gave us” has required the separations, another untrue statement.  There is no law on the books requiring separations, though the Obama administration occasionally separated children if parents had committed crimes more serious than border crossings.  But never before in U.S. history has there been any systemic effort to separate migrant parents and children; families were allowed to stay together pending immigration hearings or deportations. Trump is using the children as bargaining chips in an effort to bring Democrats to the table to support changes in immigration law that would not only strengthen border security but would also sharply cut back on legal immigration options.

Some prominent Republicans are also speaking out. Former First Lady Laura Bush wrote in a Washington Post editorial, “This zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart.” She added, “Our government should not be in the business of warehousing children in converted box stores or making plans to place them in tent cities in the desert,” options being done in Texas., where she lives. “These images are eerily reminiscent of the Japanese American internment camps of World War Two, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history,” the wife of  Republican President George W. Bush further stated.

The facilities in San Diego are run by Southwest Key, which runs 26 facilities set up originally to house only unaccompanied minors who came to the U.S.  No prior administration has ever systematically separated children from parents who came with them to the border. Southwest Key’s centers are funded by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement within the Health and Human Services department. Locally, their three centers are in El Cajon, Lemon Grove and San Diego. The children here are from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador—places where families have fled threats from drug cartels and gang violence.

Photo, left:  The detention facility in El Cajon, run by Southwest Key, is surrounded by wire fencing, concrete lots and a locked gate.

A media tour last Friday showed youths in the El Cajon facility are being treated better than centers in some other places. Notably disturbing, a facility in Texas was shown in video and described by a Congressman as warehousing children in “cages” or cage-like pens and sleeping on hard floors.  At the El Cajon facility, children sleep in beds, have exercise opportunities and educational instruction, but are limited to just two ten-minute calls a week to parents – if their parents’ location is known.  Southwest Key has indicated that the average stay at its local facilities is 40 days before children are found foster homes or if possible, placed with other family members.  A bell rings when a child is allowed to leave.

Congresswoman Pelosi, a California Democrat, has called the family separations “barbaric.”

Congressman Vargas (CA-51) emphasized in a press conference in San Ysidro today after the tours that the problem locally isn’t the facilities, but rather the Trump administration policies.

“The policies we have on the separation of children from their parents is immoral. It’s wrong…It’s certainly not Biblical,” Vargas state.  On Twitter earlier, he called Trump’s decision to also deny asylum to victims of domestic abuse and gang violence “heartless and dangerous” adding “We must help the most vulnerable among us.”

Three major medical organizations –the American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association, and American Academy of Pediatrics--have come out this week in opposition to the forced separation of migrant parents and children, after one distraught father killed himself upon seeing his child wrenched screaming from his arms. 

Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, toured a Texas shelter where a distraught toddler was pounding the floor, crying. Staff at the detention center told her they were prohibited from picking up and comforting the frightened children.

“She didn’t have  her mother, and none of us can fix that,” the prominent physician said, the Washington Post reports. “The really basic, foundational needs of having trust in adults as a young child was not being met. That contradicts everything we know that the kids need to build their health,” Kraft said, adding that this can cause long-term, devastating effects from stress that can disrupt a child’s development and even cause physical health problems.

Although news of the Congressional delegation’s visit to the El Cajon detention facility for children was kept under wraps, with even media receiving only last-minute notice, two protesters managed to find out and show up.

Carrying a sign that read “Keep the Kids, Deport the Racists”, Elizabeth Osborne told ECM that she drove all the way from Solvang, California because “I’m just concerned that these young people are being separated from parents through no fault of their own. This is a disgrace,” she said, adding that she can’t believe this is happening in America.

But at least one local resident showed no sympathy for the children, or the life-threatening plights that led many immigrant families to come here.

 Erica, who gave only her first name, says she works at a salon in a business center next door and learned that children were being detained here only after media coverage on Friday. She asked media to go away and stop disrupting her business, adding, “Parents should stay where they came from and not bring their children here.”  She said America has enough trouble taking care of our own citizens.

But across the nation, many disagree with her point of view.  Rallies are being held across the nation and media around the world is sharply criticizing the U.S. policy, which the United Nations has said violates international human rights laws and treaties.

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