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VTDigger: Welch Condemns Family Separations on Border Visit

June 19, 2018
In The News

In a facility not far from the Mexican border in Texas, Rep. Peter Welch saw three young boys — brothers, he assumed — lying on thin mattresses under tinfoil-like Mylar blankets on Sunday.

“The three of them were holding onto each other for dear life,” the Vermont Democrat later described the scene. “They don’t know what their future is.”

The boys were in a facility where federal authorities have been detaining immigrants who enter the country illegally, where a new policy has resulted in the separation of thousands of children from their parents.

Welch traveled to the border area in Texas with a delegation of half a dozen Democratic House and Senate members to observe the conditions at an area that has become the epicenter of new policy.

Earlier this year the Trump administration adopted a “zero tolerance” approach for handling immigrants who cross the border illegally. The policy requires all adults who illegally enter the United States to be arrested and criminally prosecuted.

Because children cannot be held with their parents in federal prison, children have been separated from their family members. They are kept in facilities managed by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Welch and the other lawmakers visited five sites in the area where migrants wait to cross into the United States, where they are held and where they are processed.

In the facility where the three boys were held, people were contained in, “in effect, cages” made of chain link fencing in a windowless warehouse, he said. There, some people appeared to be segregated by age and gender.

Typically Welch would expect an area with a lot of children as fairly noisy, he said. That was not the case there, he said.

“These kids were pretty quiet, pretty silent, and kind of staring straight ahead,” Welch said.

The group also went to an official border crossing on a bridge.

Under the administration’s policy, migrants who seek asylum by presenting themselves at a port of entry may not be subject to the same criminal prosecution standard. But the port has slowed its acceptance of applicants, according to Welch, driving people to cross illegally nearby.

At the crossing, Welch said he was impressed by the way the Border Patrol agents were handling the situation, implementing a policy they did not create.

He watched as a woman from Central America made it to the border with a 2-month-old baby born on her journey to the United States.

The lawmakers also visited Casa Padre, a former Walmart that has been converted into a holding facility for 1,500 children. Some have been separated from their parents. The majority were apprehended crossing the border unaccompanied, according to Welch.

Federal authorities reported that nearly 2,000 children were separated from their parents in the course of just over a month. Reports suggest that number could be higher.

The children are held in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services. The administration has been looking to expand temporary housing facilities to hold children who cross the border.

Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen said the children “are being well taken care of.”

Members of the administration have asserted that it is up to Congress to change the policy.

In remarks Monday, Trump reiterated that position, accusing members of the Democratic Party — which is in the minority in both chambers — of “obstructing” progress on a legislative solution. The situation, he said according to a White House pool report, is “very strongly the Democrats’ fault.”

Those across the aisle, Trump said, are not willing to come to the table on the issue.

“We’re stuck with these horrible laws. They’re horrible laws. What’s happening is so sad,” he said.

But Welch said the separation policy is a choice this administration made. Neither the Obama nor Bush administrations opted to enforce the law in this way, he said.

“It’s totally absurd and everybody knows it,” Welch said.

Welch condemned Trump for approaching the situation as “a tactical maneuver” and “a way to get leverage.”

“What I see is an incredibly aggressive immigration policy by Donald Trump and (Attorney General) Jeff Sessions,” Welch said at an event on Wednesday in Bennington.

Refugees are being punished for escaping repressive conditions at home in Central or South America and taking a desperate gamble at the U.S. border “to make a better life.” 

“Here’s what I don’t buy,” Welch said. “I don’t buy using children as hostages. I find that unacceptable. These are innocent kids. You’re ripping them away from their mother. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to know what that does to a child.”

The child detention policy is in sharp focus as Republican leadership tees up a vote on an immigration measure they have billed as a compromise.

It would make significant changes to legal immigration processes, making it more difficult for people to get asylum. It also designates funding to start construction on a border wall, one of Trump’s key campaign promises.

The legislation includes a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country as children — an initiative favored by moderate and liberal members of Congress. Trump ended a program that granted eligible undocumented immigrants temporary work status and immunity from deportation last year.

It includes a provision that would require families be kept together while in federal custody, which would end the practice of separation.

Democrats have scoffed at the characterization of the proposal as a “compromise.”

Meanwhile, all members of the Senate Democratic caucus, including both Vermont senators, have signed onto a measure introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that would bar DHS from separating children from parents at the border.

A spokesperson for Welch said he would be a cosponsor of a parallel measure in the House.

Welch also is calling for an investigation into the separation policy, according to a video statement posted on Facebook from Texas Sunday.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., led a group of Senate Democrats in calling for the Judiciary Committee to hold a hearing on the policy Monday.

The policy has drawn criticism from a growing number of high-profile Republicans, including former first lady Laura Bush.

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott posted on social media that he is looking forward to hearing from Welch about what he learned on his trip.

Spokesperson Rebecca Kelley said that based on reports, he “is very concerned by the separation of children from their families.”

Governors in other states have taken actions to limit the involvement of the state National Guard or other state resources in the separation policy.

Kelley said there are no plans for the Vermont National Guard to be deployed to the southwest border region.

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