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An Evening with Sen. Jeff Merkley: “Humanity is Lost in Prison Camps”

Since Donald Trump took office, some of his most contentious policy decisions have been on immigration, and migrant and refugee children have born the brunt of his inhumane policies, which are our real “National Emergency.” At our most recent Listen, Learn, Lead event at the end of May, we had the opportunity to really engage with this issue with music, a talk by Senator Jeff Merkley, and the opportunity to learn from local groups involved in immigration rights.

The evening started off with a performance by the ResistSing Choir. Led by Leela Grace, they got us into a hand-clapping mood with their song, “No Ban, No Wall!”

The main event of the evening was a talk by our very own Senator Jeff Merkley on the disgraceful, illegal, and harmful treatment of migrants, immigrants, and refugees at our Southern border.

In June 2018, Merkley was the first U.S. Senator to visit a child detention center, where he saw  children of all ages warehoused in chainlink cages and no sign of their parents. Since that first visit to a detention facility, he has been working to hold accountable and change the way the Trump administration and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CPB)  is violating the rights of people who arrive at our borders, starting with border blockades by not letting people cross if they don’t have papers. “Under international and American law, people are supposed to be able to step across that line and ask for asylum,” he said. “That’s an international right."

Some of the greatest harm at our Southern border is being inflicted on children and families. Merkley recounted several stories of people he had met. One woman with a two-month-old daughter, who had to flee her home when eight months pregnant because of a death threat, gave birth with while on way to the United States, and tried three times before she crossed the border. In another instance, he met a mother and daughter in an internment camp in Dilley. Because the family had been unable to pay extortion fees to a gang, the 14-year-old daughter had been assaulted and they fled. The daughter was about to spend her fifteenth birthday in the camp. “Humanity is lost in prison camps,” said Merkley.

In fact, one of the most troubling aspects of the family separation policy is the warehousing of children in what are effectively child prisons. Over 15,000 children are locked up around the country, and almost 4,000 of them are held at a facility in Homestead, Fla. The Homestead facility is the largest, most problematic, and controversial because it is run as a for-profit facility and because John Kelly, Trump’s former chief of staff, sits on the board of its parent company.

To make money off holding children, private facilities often violate the rights of detainees by, among other things, slow-walking release to sponsors and relatives and by holding children for an average of two months in direct violation of the Flores Agreement, which mandates stays of no longer than 20 days. “There should be no for-profit in this business of detaining children,” Merkley said. “It is deeply corrupt.”

At our borders, there is only one way that children should be treated. “Children should be greeted with a smile, cold bottle of water, a bag of food, and goodwill and treated with respect and dignity throughout the immigration process,” Merkley said.

After his talk, Merkley also took questions on impeachment, the psychological effects of detention on families and children, and how we can work to end our country’s shameful immigration policies. “Use you networks to push in other states whose members of Congress who aren’t on board,” he said. “And, if you have a free week, go and protest in Homestead, Florida, outside the gates of Homestead, Florida, to shut that thing down.”

After Merkley spoke, attendees had the opportunity to hear from and sign up to take action with five activist groups working on immigration issues in Oregon: ACLU of Oregon, Innovation Law Lab, Pueblo Unidos, Portland Immigrant Rights Coalition, and Causa.

Couldn't make the event? We've got the full video of music, Merkley's talk, and activists at work!

Margaret Foley is the Communications Director for NWGSD.

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