Objection to the Trump administration’s practice of separating immigrant families at the border swelled into widespread condemnation on Father’s Day, as Democratic lawmakers blasted "inhumane" conditions at detention facilities in Texas and New Jersey, and a leading Republican denounced Trump’s "zero tolerance" immigration policies as "contrary to our values in this country."
U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) joined hundreds of protestors in Tornillo, Texas, the site of a recently erected tent city that houses some immigrant children in what critics call inhumane conditions that include triple digit temperatures during summer months. O’Rourke said the facility plans to expand to house up to 4,000 children.
"We’re here to define who we are," O’Rourke said at the protest yesterday (June 17). "Either we’re a country that takes kids from their parents at a moment that they are seeking safety and at a moment that they’re most vulnerable and desperate, or we’re a country that lives up to our best traditions and our best interests."
Later on Sunday, during an appearance on CNN, O’Rourke called Trump’s family separation practice "inhumane" and "un-American."
"And this is on all of us, not just the Trump administration," he added.
On Friday (June 15) officials with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said that nearly 2,000 children had been separated from their parents or guardians between April 19 and May 31. The dramatic increase—there were just under 1,800 family separations from October 2016 to February 2018—comes in the wake of the zero tolerance immigration policy, announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in early May, that criminally prosecutes immigrant parents who cross the United States-Mexico border.
The family separation policy, which Trump has falsely attempted to pin on Democrats, has elicited extensive condemnation from immigration advocates, religious leaders and medical professionals, who warn that the traumatic practice threatens the physical and mental health of children and their parents.
In Elizabeth, New Jersey on Sunday, Democratic lawmakers joined 500 protestors outside an immigration detention facility to denounce family separations. They later met with five detainees who have been separated from their children. Some of the detainees interviewed by lawmakers said they did not know where their children were being detained.
"Stop lying to the American people," said Representative Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.J.), outside the Elizabeth Contract Detention Facility in New Jersey, referring to Trump. "This is your policy.”
"What I saw in there is inhumane," said Representative Albio Sires (D-N.J.) in a news conference after touring the New Jersey detention center. "I see the politics of this administration and it turns my stomach, because I know what this country stands for. And that’s not what we are in America."
On Sunday, prominent Republicans joined the denunciations. Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) labeled family separations as inconsistent with American values.
"That’s traumatizing to the children who are innocent victims, and it is contrary to our values in this country," she told CBS News.
And former first lady Laura Bush, whose husband’s administration deported more than 2 million immigrants, compared the warehousing of children—hundreds are less than 4 years old, she said—to Japanese-American internment camps during World War II.
"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 outside of El Paso," she wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post. "It is our obligation to reunite these detained children with their parents—and to stop separating parents and children in the first place."
Outcry over family separations comes as Republicans in the House mull two immigration measures, both of which would provide billions for a southern border wall and curb asylum protections.
The conservative bill is expected to mirror a previous measure sponsored by Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), which would increase interior deportations. It would also give some 700,000 young immigrants, recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), renewed legal status for three years, but no path to citizenship.
Little is known about the more moderate measure. But both bills would reportedly make it more difficult for asylum seekers to advance their application process in the U.S. And both measures seek to eliminate protections offered to unaccompanied minors, which would result in a drastic decrease in minors permitted in the country while their cases are being reviewed. Both measures would also result in more children being detained for longer periods of time. Neither measure has guaranteed support.
The Democrats, meanwhile, are promoting a bill by Representative Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.). The Keep Families Together Act seeks to prevent DHS from taking children from their parents at the border.
“Congress has a moral obligation to take a stand and say that families should not be forcibly separated," Feinstein said in a statement last week after unveiling the measure in Washington D.C. “Many of these families are fleeing terrible violence, traveling thousands of miles on foot for the chance to file an asylum claim and save their lives. To traumatize them further is unconscionable, and I hope that our Republican colleagues will work with us to put an end to this immoral policy.”
As of press time, no Republicans have supported the measure.