Reps: Immigrants, being held in NJ, just want to know where families are
ELIZABETH — One man being held at Elizabeth's ICE detention center said his daughter was taken by immigration officials in the night when he slept.
Another said his 7-year-old brother was taken after crossing the border.
"These guys were tremendously emotional, obviously anybody would be," Rep. Bill Pascrell said. "They haven't seen their kids in a long time."
Pascrell was among group members of Congress who visited the facility on Sunday — finding emotions raw as those being held said they had no idea where their loved ones were. Some of the men said had been held for months without updates.
According to Rep. Frank Pallone's office, the men were mostly Central Americans who'd entered the country without authorization, but turned themselves over to apply for asylum after arriving.
Pascrell said the group of Democrat politicians was organized in conjunction with Rep. Jerry Nadler from New York, and included representatives from both states. The visit came amid a growing focus on a Trump administration policy that has the effect of separating immigrant children from their families.
Nearly 2,000 children were separated from their families over a six-week period in April and May after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the new "zero-tolerance" policy that refers all cases of illegal entry for criminal prosecution. Prior procedure had limited prosecution for many family entrants, in part because regulations prohibit detaining children with their parents since the children are not charged with a crime and the parents are.
The current holding areas have drawn widespread attention, including after journalists gained access to one site Sunday. At a McAllen, Texas, detention center hundreds of immigrant children waited in a series of cages created by metal fencing. One cage had 20 children inside. Scattered about were bottles of water, bags of chips and large foil sheets intended to serve as blankets.
Typically, parents are sent to court, while children go to government facilities as the Trump administration carries out the new policy. There have been stories of children being torn from their parents' arms and parents not being able to locate their sons and daughters. Administration officials have said when possible, children are put in the care of either appropriate government services or other relatives living in the U.S.
Trump has blamed Democrats — though it was his administration that put the policy into place, and though no Democrat-backed legislation put the policy into effect. Sessions has said the policy is in part a deterrent to keep immigrants from trying to cross into the U.S. illegally.
Pascrell said the men the representatives met were more worried about their families than they were themselves.
Pallone said the group met with five men who whose young children were taken away — or in one man's case, was separated from a young sibling — all while fleeing persecution in their home countries.
"These are not people coming here for economic reasons looking for jobs or raking some job away from somebody here," he said. "These are people in the traditional sense that are fleeing persecution, which has always been a hallmark of our society that we take those people who are refugees from awful places."
Pallone said the men were separated from their loved ones either as they were crossing the border, or not long after. In one case, he said, a man said his daughter was taken by agents in the middle of the night while he was sleeping.
"They don't have any communication with them. In some cases they've heard from relatives. One said 'my niece heard that my daughter is in a detention camp or a detention center in New York,' but it's not verified. There's no procedure," Pallone said.
There were no Republicans in the group on Sunday.
"We didn't talk about politics yesterday," Pascrell said. "We talked about what America is all about. This has nothing to do with Democrat or Republican. This is what we are about as Americans. Not about what the President says we're about, not what Mr. Sessions says we're about. Not what the secretary of Homeland Security says we're about. This was truly pro-American and the people that were there were pro-American as well."
Pallone said people coming to this country seeking asylum may not have the time to go through the legal process needed before crossing the border. The congressman further said the Trump administration's recent decision to limit who qualities political asylum — it announced last week those fleeing gang and domestic violence would not qualify — puts people in danger.
"This has got to stop. We have to allow people who are seeking political asylum to flee violence to come here. That's the time-honored tradition of this country," he said. "Trump's efforts to change that and make it much more difficult for people to seek political asylum is unacceptable. The separation of families, without any procedure for them to know where they're going or how to communicate is totally unacceptable."
As recently as Monday, President Trump said that America will not be a "migrant camp," according to CNN.
"I say it's very strongly the Democrats' fault, their obstruction, they're the real obstructionist and they're really obstructing," CNN quoted Trump as saying. "The United States will not be a migrant camp and it will not be a refugee holding facility, it won't be."
Also on Monday, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen said the administration would "not apologize for the job we do or for the job law enforcement does for doing the job that the American people expect us to do," according to another article on CNN.com. The speech came at a meeting of the National Sheriff's Association.
"Illegal actions have and must have consequences," she said. "No more free passes, no more get out of jail free cards."
Pascrell took issue with the secretary's speech and said if he was Trump he "would have fired her right after her speech."
"It's almost like a cavalier attitude. We're only following the law," he said. "No one believes that. No one believes that in the world. No Democrats, no Republicans. This is a new policy laid out by Secretary Sessions to try to blackmail anybody into supporting the Trump immigration plan, whatever the hell that is from day to day. Let me tell you, we're not backing off."
Pallone said he believes Republicans are also against the policy of the Trump administration, but have personal reasons for not speaking out against it.
"There are Republicans that agree with us, but I think there's a hesitancy on their parts because they're afraid of alienating the president," he said. "I think more and more voices speak out against it it can be changed."
A message seeking comment from ICE about the visit was not returned as of Monday evening.
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