America Is Better Than This

Trump's War Against Migrant Families


By Jeff Merkley

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An exposé and cry of outrage at the cruelty and chaos the Trump administration has wrought at the border with child separations, border blockades, and a massive gulag of child prisons housing thousands.

Jeff Merkley couldn’t believe his eyes. He never dreamed the United States could treat vulnerable young families with such calculated brutality. Few had witnessed what Merkley discovered just by showing up at the border and demanding to see what was going on behind closed doors.

Contrary to the official stories and soothing videos, he found mothers and children, newborn babies and infants, stranded for days on border bridges in blistering heat or locked up in ice-cold holding pens. There were nearly 1,500 boys jammed into a former Walmart, a child tent prison in the desert with almost 3,000 boys and girls, and children struggling to survive in gang-filled Mexican border towns after they were blocked from seeking asylum in the United States.

Worst of all, there were the children ripped out of their parents’ arms and sorted into cages in some profoundly warped attempt to discourage migration.

This was how the Trump administration treated the child victims of unspeakable violence that had driven them from their homes: as pawns in a power play rather than as humans worthy of respect and dignity.

It was Merkley’s visits — captured live on viral video — that triggered worldwide outrage at the forced separation of children from their parents. Just by taking an interest — by caring about the people legally claiming asylum at America’s borders — Merkley helped expose the Trump administration’s war on migrant families. Along the way, he helped turn the tide against some of its worst excesses.

AMERICA IS BETTER THAN THIS tells the inside story of how one senator, with no background as an immigration activist, became a leading advocate for reform of the brutal policies that have created a humanitarian crisis on the southern U.S. border. It represents the heartfelt and candid voice of a concerned American who believes his country stands for something far bigger and better.


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ON A SUNNY DAY IN MAY 2018, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF Sessions traveled to the fenced beach that separates San Diego, California, from Tijuana, Mexico. He spoke from behind a large round seal of the Department of Homeland Security mounted on a stocky wooden lectern, against the backdrop of the high, slatted steel bars of the border fence that slices through the sand and dips toward the ocean.

He was speaking just outside a unique meeting place for Mexicans and Americans, called Friendship Park, dedicated as a national monument in 1971 by first lady Pat Nixon. For two decades, there was nothing more than an international line separating the two countries. Then came a fence, the 9/11 attacks, and the park was closed to the public. Eventually there came a second fence, closing off the park except under strict official control. Friendship was fenced in.

Standing next to Thomas Homan, the Acting Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Sessions sounded like he thought the United States was under attack: “Today we are here to send a message to the world: we are not going to let this country be overwhelmed. People are not going to caravan or otherwise stampede our border.”

Sessions quickly went on to say that meant “100 percent of illegal southwest border crossings” would be prosecuted. What had been a violation of civil law was now going to be a crime. “I have put in place a ‘zero tolerance’ policy for illegal entry on our southwest border,” he said. “If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple. If you smuggle illegal aliens across our border, then we will prosecute you. If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law.”1

My eyes widened. Trump’s new policy had a catchy name, “Zero Tolerance,” that made it seem like a get-tough-on-crime doctrine, but the details sounded like something altogether different. This was a policy that marked refugees as criminals for the “crime” of fleeing oppression. Moreover, a central feature was that children would be torn from their parents’ arms before the adults would be locked up in prison indefinitely.

I was astounded. How would our nation be different today if our ancestors fleeing persecution abroad had been treated as criminals in the past? And how would our nation be different if our ancestors who were brought here by force or subterfuge, from African slaves to indentured Chinese workers, had been received with freedom and opportunity?

I thought about how scary it is for children to flee the familiar surroundings of their land on a perilous journey to a new place with a different culture and different language, and how the only thing that gives a child some sense of confidence and stability is the trust he or she has in the parent and the ability to hold the father’s or mother’s hand. And now Sessions and Trump were proposing to rip that hand away, leaving the children with no understanding of why their parents had abandoned them and no sense of what would become of them. The children would be locked up in a system of expanding child prisons.

How different this is from the vision of America inscribed on the Statue of Liberty as a welcoming home for “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Trump’s and Sessions’ new policy demolishes the notion that we are a nation that treats people fleeing persecution with fundamental respect and dignity.

The core of this new policy seemed to be the infliction of massive trauma on children. This “Zero Tolerance” policy sounded more like “Zero Humanity.”

I refused to believe that the Trump administration really planned to implement this policy. Surely, here in the land of Lady Liberty, with her torch held high to light the way for refugees, Trump was not planning to criminalize a flight from oppression and inflict harm on children.

Therefore, I concluded, Sessions’ announcement of Trump’s new policy must be more rhetoric than reality. No matter how tough the Trump administration wanted to sound on immigration, I couldn’t believe that they would establish an immigration policy based on deliberately hurting children.

I shared my thoughts with my team. “They can’t possibly be doing this,” I said.

One member of my team, Lauren Oppenheimer, responded with the words that set me out on a journey: “There is one way to find out, and that is to go to the border.”

She was right. I had to go to the border to find out.

* * *

The first Sunday of June 2018, I was on a plane headed for McAllen, Texas, via Houston. My trip got off to a rough start. I hit a travel delay in Houston when the plane’s air-conditioning broke, and we sat sweating on the tarmac while the airline rustled up a replacement plane. This delay crunched an already short trip, making it impossible to visit the border bridge that connects across the Rio Grande to Reynosa, Mexico.

When I landed, Jennifer Harbury, a volunteer assisting the migrants, filled me on what I missed. She had witnessed fifty or more migrants stranded on the American side of the bridge because they had been refused entry through the doors of the U.S. port of entry building at the foot of the bridge. They were afraid to go back to Reynosa because of the gangs that would prey on them. Jennifer had been ferrying food and water to the migrants, some of who had been there in the heat for as long as ten days. Now the bridge would have to wait for another visit.

Twenty minutes’ drive from the international bridge is a neighborhood of single-story industrial units and warehouses. There, in an otherwise unremarkable building, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) detains and interviews migrants to determine their fate.

That was our first stop, and our delay in arriving did have one advantage. It introduced an element of surprise into our visit. According to the immigration advocates, buses had transported a lot of immigrants away shortly before we were to arrive, which would of course make the place look less crowded and more organized. But during the delay, Border Patrol agents had brought in more migrants, filling it up again. We would get a more authentic look at their operation.

Upon arrival I found a sizable press huddle across the street from the compound. Ray Zaccaro, my Senate Communications Director, had alerted some press to my visit, but I never anticipated that there would be such substantial interest.

“What’s going on inside?” asked one local reporter.

“None of you have been allowed inside?” I replied, surprised to hear that the media was excluded from such an important place. “Well, I’ll go inside and see, and tell you what’s going on after I come out. Because I have no idea what they are doing.”

In America, it’s never a good sign when the press has been barred entry to see the basic operations of our government. The press had not been let in for a simple reason: The Trump administration did not want the press, and by extension the American people, to see how they were treating immigrants.

Walking out of the briefing room to the holding cells, I was stunned by what I saw.

Stuffed inside what looked like dog kennels were dozens of people. On the left and right were pens divided by cinder block walls, with fencing across the front. Men in the pens on the left, women and children on the right. These are the hieleras, the notorious holding cells that the CBP often keeps cold to make life miserable for refugees.

The pens were jammed with humanity. Some migrants were trying to lie down but there simply wasn’t enough room, so several were sitting with their knees up. They were wrapped in Mylar space blankets and had nothing but the clothes on their backs. At the back of each pen was a low wall that served as a half-screen for a toilet. The migrants looked terrified, and many of the women were crying.

Beyond the holding pens was a room with computer stations where new immigrants were being interviewed through a live video link with an officer elsewhere. At that moment there was a family lined up with a teenage girl in front of them speaking into a video station.

“What’s going on here?” I asked. “Does this girl belong with the family? And why is she being interviewed instead of the father?”

The officials explained they interviewed the family members separately to see if their stories matched up, to figure out whether they really were a family.

We stepped from the interview room into a large warehouse-style space. It was filled with thirty-foot-square chain-linked cages, separating adults from children, men from women, and boys from girls. It was disturbingly quiet for a room with so many people held inside.

The CBP officials wanted to show us where the food was prepared for their detainees, but I told them I wasn’t interested. Then they offered to show us the medical center and the first aid supplies, but I was fixated by those chain-link cages.

“I don’t want to see your medical facility,” I said. “I want to know about these people in these cages.”

The pens and cages were not new construction. Their existence and use had preceded the Trump administration. The issue was how they were being used to implement Trump’s child separation strategy.

They had pulled a young father and teenage son out of the cages, saying they had just reunited them. It appeared to be a moment that was staged for us, and they asked the father how he and his son were doing. The father said they were fine, but his eyes told another story. He looked for all the world like he was trapped in a world he didn’t understand and feared for his fate.

We stopped at a cage in the center of the warehouse where a couple dozen boys were held. They were lining up by height, waiting to be fed. The smallest and youngest looked knee-high to a grasshopper, about four years old.

“So have these children, these boys, been separated from their parents?” I asked.

“Well, not all of them have been separated,” the officer said.

“So some came by themselves to the border?”

“Yes, some of the older ones came by themselves.”

“But some of these kids were separated from their parents?”

“Yes,” the officer answered.

“Well, where do you do that?” I asked in disbelief. I couldn’t get my head around what was taking place. He pointed to the door we had just passed through.

“We bring them in through that door, and that’s where we separate them.”

Child separation. There it was, right in front of me. I was soon to learn, and the nation was soon to learn, that under Zero Tolerance the CBP was forcibly taking more than a thousand kids a month from their parents. The separations happened at various stages. Some at the border, some at the hieleras, some at the processing centers. The separations happened in different ways. Some children were torn out of their parents’ arms. Some were led away under a ruse of a medical check or a meal or a bathroom break, never to return. Some parents were told their children were being taken. Others were told they would soon be reunited.

No matter how it was done, it was horrific. Desperate parents. Desperate and disturbed children. Neither the parents nor the children having any idea of how the system works, and when or if they would ever see their children again.

Back in the warehouse, standing in front of the cage of boys, I looked around. Through the chain-link fences you could make out some of the groups of adults. I wondered how long the boys would be in that cage before they were whisked away. And whether they could catch glimpses of their mothers or fathers or sisters, and whether it would be the last glimpse they would have for a very long time.

I am generally an even-keeled person. But I was stunned and angry at what I had just witnessed. As we left the building, Ray Zaccaro, my Communications Director, looked emotionally distraught. “I can’t believe what we just saw,” he said.

As promised, I spoke to the handful of local reporters and cameras outside and described what I had just seen. It was an emotional hour, but more was to come.

* * *

Before seeing las hieleras and the warehouse cages, the CBP officials had set Ray and me down in a briefing room. They were determined to give us the official story, complete with diagrams and charts, seated around long white tables like a classroom. They cited statistics and even showed us a promotional video. I was impatient.

I asked the lead officer, Lloyd Easterling, division chief for the CBP, Rio Grande Valley, if they were separating children from their parents, as envisioned by Sessions’ and Trump’s Zero Tolerance policy. He admitted they were splitting families apart.

“Well, are you comfortable doing that, given the potential trauma to the children?”

There was a long silence.

“We don’t make the policies,” Chief Easterling finally replied. “It’s our job to implement them.”

I pressed on. “I’ve read that when you separate the kids it’s hard for the parents to find their kids and the kids to find their parents.”

“Oh no, that’s not true,” he assured me. “They all have A-numbers.”

“So the kids have the A-numbers of their parents and the parents have the A-numbers of their kids?”

He responded that that was exactly right.

A-numbers are alien registration numbers that are up to nine digits long. The CBP officials said they gave the A-numbers to migrants on a piece of paper that also had a phone number migrants could call to find family members. I’m not sure how they thought migrants would keep track of the paper with their own A-number—let alone the A-numbers for their family members—as the CBP moved them from place to place in the immigration system. The numbers weren’t on a wrist band or neck chain they could easily track. And the numbers were way too long to memorize.

The system for keeping families connected seemed flawed, so I explored it further.

“Are you saying this works really well? That a parent or child can call this number and easily find their family member?”

He insisted it worked superbly. I decided to give them one more chance to square their answer with the reports that migrant parents were having great difficulty finding their children, let alone reaching them on the telephone.

“Maybe what you’re saying is that it works really well in theory, but would you acknowledge there are some problems in implementation? Some kinks to get worked out?”

They would acknowledge no such thing. One officer responded: “It works really well in practice.”

As I strongly suspected then, and was confirmed later, the system didn’t work as billed. The parents were held by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). DHS transferred the separated children to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in the Department of Health and Human Services. The two agencies had completely different computer systems.

And when DHS separated the kids from their parents, they reclassified the children as Unaccompanied Alien Children (UACs). So ORR had no idea which UACs truly arrived at the border unaccompanied and which UACs were children who had arrived with parents. The ORR computers did not have the parents’ names in the file with the child’s name.

Little to no planning had gone into keeping track of the families as a whole. And there were operational problems that were highlighted when I joined other Oregon members of Congress weeks later, visiting parents held at a federal prison in Sheridan, Oregon. They pointed out that when they arrived at the prison, the prison authorities had taken away their papers. So if they had ever had a paper with an A-number, they didn’t have it now. They were being held in their cells for most of the day to keep them separated from the regular inmates at the prison, so they had little opportunity to access a phone. In addition, they pointed out that the phone cost money to use and they didn’t have any money.

There was in theory a free phone number, but most didn’t know about it. And some who did and tried the phone, found out that no one on the other end of the line spoke their language. Although many migrants speak Spanish, others from Central America speak indigenous languages. And yet other migrants, like the ones we were meeting with, were from other parts of the world. It is hard to get a facilitator on the line who could communicate with the migrants from countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Brazil, Mauritania, and Congo.

If the adults couldn’t make the system work, there was no way their children were going to make it work. While a few parents found their children through the persistence of helpful staff or volunteers, for most it was as if they were imprisoned on separate planets.

It was clear to me from Easterling’s response to my inquiries that I was going to get the glossy “everything is perfect and wonderful” treatment, not honest evaluations of the strengths and weaknesses of the system.

A DHS Inspector General report issued in September 2018, confirmed the problem I was asking about.2 DHS “struggled to identify, track, and reunify families separated under Zero Tolerance due to limitations with its information technology systems, including a lack of integration between systems.” The report summary continued, “DHS provided inconsistent information to aliens who arrived with children during Zero Tolerance, which resulted in some parents not understanding that they would be separated from their children, and being unable to communicate with their children after separation.”

* * *

Upon leaving the CBP processing center, we headed for a humanitarian respite center for new immigrants, run by the Sacred Heart sisters. Even after the start of Zero Tolerance, the CBP was not locking up all the migrants who had crossed the border. They just didn’t have enough space. So CBP officials would take a group of migrants and dump them onto the street near the respite center without money or food or a plan on where to go. That puts migrants in a pretty desperate condition. Fortunately, the Sacred Heart team stepped in to help.

The center was packed. Some migrants were sitting on chairs, some on the floor. Some simply stood as they waited for help. It wasn’t clear where they would go or how they would fend for themselves. The volunteers at the shelter would assist each migrant by sitting with them, listening to them, getting them food, helping them figure out a plan, and working to put them in contact with family or friends who could provide a room and a bus ticket.

I began asking a few of them about the warehouse, especially how long they had been there. Children are supposed to be detained there no more than 72 hours, but the new arrivals at the respite center said some children were being held for more than a week.

I sat down to speak to a pregnant woman and asked where she was going to go. The staff were helping her figure out what relative she was going to stay with, and how she would get the money for a bus ticket. I asked why she came to the United States, and her answer was a punch to the stomach. “I was gang-raped,” she said. “That’s why I left.”

* * *

Our next planned stop was a former Walmart store in Brownsville, about an hour away. This was a child prison run by Southwest Key Programs. I had heard that as many as 1,000 boys might be stuck inside there. That sounded impossible, but worth checking out.

My staff had sought official permission to visit, but the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) had rejected our request, saying that two weeks’ notice was required. That seemed over the top. It made planning very difficult, given complex congressional schedules. And it surely didn’t take two weeks for ORR to arrange for an on-site manager to show one around. There are two main reasons, in my mind, for this policy. The first is to discourage members of Congress from visiting. The second is to give them plenty of time to implement the Potemkin Village strategy of making a place look perfect before a visit. Neither reason is acceptable.

ORR does have the ability to waive the two-week requirement, and we asked for a waiver. ORR had turned us down. So Ray asked me if we should still go. It was a long way. It was hot out. And they probably weren’t going to let us in the door.

“You know what? Yes. Let’s go,” I said. “I’ll knock on the door. I’ll introduce myself and ask if there’s someone to show me around. It’s a large facility. They might show us because we are there, and it’s not that big a deal to walk us around.”

We drove on to Brownsville in our rented black Nissan Altima, with a handful of local reporters tagging along in their own cars. We were hot, tired, and hungry, but we also knew we were beginning to see something that no outsider had witnessed. On the way there I recorded a video to post to Facebook, telling everyone what we had seen in McAllen and what we were hoping to see in Brownsville. In a democracy, we need to ask questions and we need to expect answers. So we were heading to this facility in Brownsville to do just that.

Southwest Key calls this facility a shelter. I call it a child prison. I call it a prison because children are sent there and locked up against their will. That sounds more like a prison than a shelter to me. This particular child prison is named Casa Padre, as declared by a large sign above the entry. Translated, that means “Father’s House,” which is a curious name for a place housing many children who have been forcibly taken from their parents.

In the former Walmart’s parking lot, there were a couple of temporary wooden barriers constructed like saw horses, painted with the words KEEP OUT. It appeared that they were designed to keep away cars not associated with Southwest Key, so we left our Altima farther away and walked past the barriers toward the main door. We started recording another video for Facebook and the media to make sure the world could experience what we were witnessing in real time.

“I think it’s unacceptable that a member of Congress is not being admitted to see what is happening to children whose families are applying for asylum,” I told the cameras. “So I decided to come out here, and go up to the door, and explain why I’m here, and ask to be let in. So that’s what I’m going to do now. Here we go.”

As we walked through the parking lot, I talked about my experience in McAllen and the trauma inflicted on children who were separated from their parents there. I explained how this new policy of child separation was meant to assault and hurt these children, supposedly to discourage others from coming. “I think that is a horrific attitude for the United States,” I said as I arrived at the main door. “Instead of protecting children as we have always done, and do the best thing for children, instead we’re going to proceed to inflict harm on them as a strategy of deterring people from seeking to come to the U.S. following calamity abroad.”

The door was shut but there was a piece of paper taped to the blacked-out doorway with a phone number on it, so I called it with my cell phone and put the call on speakerphone. There was no reply, but a detention center worker walked in at that moment. I asked if I could enter with him, but he said I couldn’t, that this was private property. I explained I was a member of Congress, and he said no. I asked to speak to a supervisor, and he said there was no one who would approve that.

“I want to know if they have second thoughts about being partners in a process of ripping children away from their families under this new policy,” I said to the audience watching on Facebook. “Because it would seem to me that the very good people who run this nonprofit and are dedicated to helping children would not want to be part of an operation that is actually hurting those children.”


  • "Senator Jeff Merkley has led the fight to expose President Trump's inhumane family separation policy and to reunite families torn apart at the border. America is Better Than This is a powerful reminder of our moral duty to speak out and fight back."—Senator Elizabeth Warren
  • "Senator Jeff Merkley bears powerful witness to the trauma faced by migrant families on America's border, and delivers an urgent challenge to every reader to fight for justice, respect, and dignity for all."—p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; line-height: 17.0px; font: 14.7px Helvetica; color: #323130; -webkit-text-stroke: #323130; background-color: #ffffff}span.s1 {font-kerning: none}Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO of Mercy Corps

On Sale
Aug 20, 2019
Page Count
240 pages

JM and Mary

Jeff Merkley

About the Author

Jeff Merkley is a senator from Oregon, serving in the US Senate since 2009.

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