By Michelle Monroe, St. Albans Messenger
“Appalling” and “un-American,” those are the words Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., used to describe conditions in a processing center in southern Texas where children have been separated from their parents.
Welch spoke with the Messenger by phone Sunday, June 17 after visiting a processing center known as “The Icebox,” while en route to the Walmart in Brownsville, Texas, where teenagers are being held.
At The Icebox, a converted warehouse, Welch described children as young as 3 or 4 separated into groups based on gender and age by chain link fence. Above their heads was more of the fencing, he said.
“It’s like a big, windowless warehouse, that has, in effect, cages. Chain link fence with a chain link ceiling,” Welch said. “It’s appalling. It’s un-American and it’s unnecessary.”
Despite their youth, the children were not playing, but sitting and staring. “It was surprising to me to see so many kids sitting quietly, staring blankly,” Welch said.
Although the building is known for being cold, the detainees, including children, are given only Mylar blankets.
Among them were three brothers. Welch estimated their ages as between 5 and 8. They were lying on a mattress, huddled beneath their blankets. “They were holding onto each other for dear life,” Welch said.
According to a report from The Guardian, which had a reporter along on the trip, the facility holds 1,100 people, not all of them children. The Dept. of Homeland Security revealed last week that it has separated 1,995 children from their parents or guardians over the last six weeks.
“It also appears evident that a lot of the crisis is a manufactured one,” said Welch.
President Donald Trump has said the family separations are the fault of Democrats who need to “change the law.”
“There’s no evidence for it, and Trump is simply asserting it, despite the fact that it’s blatantly untrue,” Welch said when asked about the president’s statements.
“He did this. He said we’re going to start prosecuting a family that comes to this country asking for help,” said Welch. “This is Trump policy.”
Historically, those who ask for asylum receive a hearing. While awaiting that hearing families remain together, explained Welch. Granting the hearings is not just policy, it’s a treaty obligation. The United States is a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, under which it agreed to consider of the claims of those who report being persecuted or endangered in their native countries.
While most asylum requests are ultimately denied, said Welch, previously families would remain together while awaiting a hearing.
However, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has chosen to treat those seeking asylum as criminals, according to Welch. When parents or guardians are charged with a crime, they are separated from their children.
“Don’t make it a crime to knock on the door and ask for help,” said Welch.
Most of these families are from Central America and have been traveling for weeks, even months to reach the U.S.
By making it difficult for people on foot to reach the port of entry in Hidalgo, Texas – where they can present themselves to officials and formally request asylum – DHS has made it more likely families will try to cross elsewhere, according to Welch. “If in frustration, they basically walk down the road and cross the Rio Grande, they get charged with a crime, even if they are asking for asylum” said Welch.
Although the members of Congress on the tour were not supposed to speak with the asylum seekers, Welch said he spoke with two women, both from Guatemala.
In Guatemala, as well as Honduras and El Salvador, gang activity has pushed murder rates to record highs, according to “Mafia of the Poor: Gang Violence and Extortion in Central America,” a report from the International Crisis Group.
The gangs secure funds by using threats of violence to extort money from small businesses and individuals.
One of the women told Welch she fled just such extortion and murder threats with her 13-year-old daughter. They have now been separated. She had “no idea where daughter was or when she would see her,” said Welch.
Parents and children who have been separated have no way to communicate. When asked how families would be reconciled, “officials are saying ‘It’s in our computer,’ and ‘We’ll know,’” said Welch.
“It’s hard to imagine how anxious these families are,” said Welch.
Murders of women in Guatemala increased 34 percent between January 2017 and January 2018, according to the Mutual Support Group, a humanitarian organization. Guatemala’s own human rights ombudsman reports that 5,635 minors in the country were victims of violence or sexual abuse in 2017.
Another woman who fled the country’s epidemic of violence gave birth during her journey, said Welch. She had not been separated from her infant, but they were being kept at the Hidalgo port of entry, which is not an area designed or intended for people to live in, he noted.
“They’re not sneaking in. They’re not smuggled in,” said Welch. “They’re asking for help. Trump is saying that’s a crime.”
“It has nothing to do with prior presidents. This is all a discretionary decision by this president and this attorney general.”
The policy, said Welch, is unnecessary. “There is no need for this. It’s doesn’t make our border safer,” said Welch.
Sessions has argued that if people know they’ll be separated from their children when they arrive in the U.S., they will be less likely to come here.
The president has also indicated he might be willing to end the family separations and re-instate protections for the so-called Dreamers, immigrants brought illegally into the U.S. by their parents when they were children, in exchange for concessions on other border issues, such as his desire for a wall on the Mexican border.
“There is nothing legitimate about holding hostage the fates of innocent kids,” said Welch. “There’s a breakdown of the political process and a lack of restraint. You don’t harm innocent people to get your way.”
One of those on the border trip with Welch was a pediatrician. He shared his concern about the lifelong impacts children might have as a result of the trauma of being separated from their parents and caregivers, said Welch.
Nationally, the policy has drawn fire from physicians and psychiatrists groups such as the American Psychiatrists Association and the American Academy of Family Physicians.
“This is a mean-spirited tactic that’s doing real damage to innocent children,” said Welch.
Asked about changing the policy, Welch said that theoretically Congress could pass a law ending the practice, but he didn’t see that as likely.“We’ve got a president who essentially is calling the shots for my Republican colleagues in the House.”
Although he intends to request that the House Oversight Committee on which he sits hold hearings, the true solution is for Americans to know what’s happening, as only public anger will convince the majority to act, in Welch’s view.
Indeed, House Republicans have been touting a bill they claim will end the separations. It does so by ending the requirement that children be kept in the least restrictive environment possible, making it possible for children to be incarcerated with their parents.
The president has said he opposes the bill.
Sen. Peter Welch speaks in front of the Casa Padre immigration shelter in Brownsville, Texas. Casa Padre houses an estimated 1,500 boys.