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Sen. Merkley Condemns Trump's War Against Migrant Families as U.S. Moves to Indefinitely Jail Kids

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AMY GOODMAN: So, you've introduced the Stop Cruelty to Migrant Children Act, co-sponsored by the New York Senator Chuck Schumer. What is it? And how are you going to stop President Trump?

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Yes, 40 Democrats have sponsored it. We haven't been able to get a single Republican on it. It starts, and it says you cannot repel children at the border and leave them stranded. You cannot hold them in inhumane conditions in these holding cells. You have to provide all the basics. You cannot lock them up in an extended period in these influx facilities, which so far have been exempt from the Flores settlement agreement. So, whereas Flores says you've got to move them to state-licensed within three days, many children have been held an average of two months in these influx facilities. It says you get a lawyer and you get a case worker, so that you can actually get your immigration case processed in a timely fashion and assistance how to negotiate this complex system. It facilitates the movement so that you can be in a home and a school and a playground, which is where children belong, not behind barbed wire, as your case is proceeding.

AMY GOODMAN: Also talk about your trip to Tijuana.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Yeah, so, I wanted to see what this all looked like from the Mexican side of the border. And there are some 30 facilities in Tijuana where refugees are crowded in. Different humanitarian groups have set up houses. I went to seven of them. One of them was the size of a conference room, a modest-sized conference room. Seventeen families were living in that one room, four sets of bunk beds along the walls, nine mattresses on the floor. And I just feel that the woman who ran it was such an angel, because she was trying to give people space to get off the street, where they're so incredibly vulnerable.

But these are folks caught up in the metering system, waiting what at that time was about six weeks. Now it's longer. And children, unaccompanied children, were not even allowed to get into the metering book the book this big registry that's laid out every morning, run theoretically by other refugees. In fact, it's a way for both the Mexican government and the American government to dodge responsibility, because this is probably a direct violation of the Refugee Convention.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you also visited the Homestead child prison in Florida. That's where a lot of the Democratic presidential candidates went, because their debate in Miami wasn't faraway. And one after another went there and decried this facility. You spoke with a number of children there. Now, this is the place that the former White House chief of staff for President Trump, John Kelly, has now joined the board of its owner, Caliburn's board. You mention in your book the conflict of interest here.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Yes. John Kelly, before he went to the administration, was on the board and paid. And within a few weeks of joining the administration, he was advocating for child separation and detention, and which would be, of course, of great profit to this for-profit prison. They are paid, on a non-compete contract, around $750 to $775 a day per child. It is a vast amount of money. And it is corrupt because it basically incentivizes the imprisonment of children rather than their movement

AMY GOODMAN: Say again. Each child, $750 a day?

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Seven hundred and fifty dollars a day. So, if they can keep...

AMY GOODMAN: And they're stopping kids from going to be with family or other supervisors that family has approved.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Yes. They have no incentive, obviously, to have the case workers or the field workers to set up the transition to a family setting for these children. This is something ugly and terrible. And then, after Kelly left the administration, they put him right back on the board in a paid board position for Caliburn, which is the new incarnation of the company that owns, owns or operates, this for-profit prison.

Now, it is right now it has been emptied out. It is hurricane season. I called up the head of Homestead, because I had heard from other advocates that just a Category 2 hurricane would put a six-foot wave through it. I asked if they had a plan. They said they did, to move the children out in case of a hurricane. I heard from everyone else they didn't. They decided to empty out the facility for now, but they're keeping it ready to put children back in.

The contract, in theory, ends in November. And this is a point all Americans should say, "Shut down this for-profit prison. Do not renew this contract, this corrupt imprisonment-of-children contract."

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Merkley, the book, America Is Better Than This, begins with the mother and daughter from Guatemala, Albertina and Yakelin Contreras. You brought Albertina and Yakelin to the State of the Union this year. Talk about who they are.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Yeah, so, they were early victims of child separation, caught totally unaware. Yakelin, who was 11 years old, watched her mother be led away in shackles. They were separated for two months, and it wasn't until a court, in June of 2018, shut down child separation that the mother was freed. And then she couldn't find her daughter. She got help, eventually got her daughter released and returned to her. The administration opposed it, tried to block it. She had to go to court. And finally, when her daughter was flown into Tennessee, the whole community group came out and welcomed her.

It was on the day of the State of the Union that Yakelin turned 12 years old. It was her 12th birthday. And she is the most charming young girl, so excited about life forward. And I asked her, "If you had anything you could say, if you could talk to the president of the United States, what would you say?" She said, "Mr. President, end this most cruel law." I thought those were the best way to describe what the administration is doing: "this most cruel law." And so I titled the prologue after that.

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