A Democratic senator is accusing the Trump administration of being part of a "cruel" effort against unauthorized immigrant children after he was denied entry to a Texas immigration center for unaccompanied minors when he showed up asking for a tour of the facility.
Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley -- who acknowledged that he had been told in advance he wouldn't be admitted to the facility -- told CNN's "New Day" Monday morning that he believes President Donald Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Department of Homeland Security "do not want members of Congress or the public to know what's going on" in the center.
"It's damaging to children, putting them through a horrific experience in a land where they know no one and they don't know where they're being sent and don't understand why they're being sent just as a way to be, if you will, cruel as a strategy of deterrence, not deterrence from people crossing the border, deterrence from people seeking asylum," Merkley said.
A spokesperson for the Health and Human Services Department's Administration for Children and Families, which handles the care of immigrant children alone in custody, said the senator and his team tried to enter the center "unannounced" and was broadcasting live on social media. The spokesperson said Merkley did not follow "appropriate processes," as other lawmakers have, to visit the center.
"Thankfully for the safety, security and dignity of the children being cared for there, they were denied access," the spokesperson said. "The Department of Health and Human Services takes the legal mandate to care for these children seriously. No one who arrives unannounced at one of our shelters demanding access to the children in our care will be permitted, even those claiming to be US Senators. ... We would welcome him to engage in (the appropriate) process so that he may visit the facility to make headway on this important issue, rather than just headlines."
Merkley told CNN that when his team called to request a tour of the center where "upwards of 1,000 children are being held," they were told that it was the facility's policy not to admit anyone.
"My team conveyed that I was going down to visit the border and see what was going on and I would try to come by and visit and hope that they rethought their position but obviously they didn't," he added.
The Brownsville, Texas, facility, which is housed inside a former Walmart, is owned by Southwest Key Programs, a private nonprofit that contracts with the government to run shelters that house unaccompanied immigrant children. Southwest Key Programs did not immediately respond to a CNN request for comment. The organization's website says it runs 27 immigrant children's shelters in Texas, Arizona and California.
Despite being denied a tour, Merkley and others on the trip with him showed up to the facility anyway.
A video posted to Merkley's Facebook page shows the senator and individuals with cameras approaching the facility. When they arrive, they encounter a staff member entering the center, who says the group needs to vacate the premises because it's private property.
After calling a phone number associated with the facility twice and being told that a manager will speak with him, Merkley encounters police and a manager who says to call a Washington, DC-area phone number to the facility's contractor for a statement. He is then told to leave the premises.
In a viral tweet posted Sunday, Merkley is photographed speaking with a police officer outside the facility where he filmed.
"I was barred entry. Asked repeatedly to speak to a supervisor—he finally came out and said he can't tell us anything. Police were called on us," Merkley tweeted. "Children should never be ripped from their families & held in secretive detention centers."
Protest over separation of children from families
Merkley's visit to the US-Mexico border was a response to a new policy of the administration to refer all people who cross the border illegally for criminal prosecution on top of immigration proceedings -- a policy that will result in the separations of families who cross illegally as the adults are put into the criminal justice system.
On another leg of his tour in the McAllen area -- a visit to a border station run by Customs and Border Protection -- Merkley claimed he saw children in "cages" similar to those in a 2014 image recently circulated across social media -- people sleeping on concrete floors, wire fencing, with only thin "space blankets" as to cover them.
"Yesterday morning at the McAllen Border Station, at the processing center, they have big cages made out of fencing and wire and nets stretched across the top of them so people can't climb out of them," the senator said. "Every time I probed yesterday on the circumstances (of why they were held this way) the response was just basically a generic, 'That is what's required for security, this is what is required for control.'"
Tyler Houlton, a press secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, said in a statement: "We appreciate the Senator's interest in the subject, and are happy to provide him with an understanding of the immigration process: DHS follows the laws passed by Congress and processes alien children safely and humanely. Contrary to any misinformation campaign, the safety of children is paramount for DHS."
"At 2pm on a Friday, the Senator asked to visit a secure DHS facility over the weekend where children are present and we worked with him to provide him access," Houlton's statement continued. "This presented obvious and serious privacy concerns -- not to mention disrupting operations. He was able to visit the facility on Sunday."
The senator told CNN on Monday that he hopes to hold hearings on the matter.