Democrat lawmakers from Oregon who visited with immigrant detainees on Saturday leveled harsh criticism at President Donald Trump's “zero tolerance” border policy, saying it "makes zero sense and shows zero understanding of American values.”
U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, and Reps. Suzanne Bonamici and Earl Blumenauer spoke to reporters following a visit to a federal detention center in the state, where they met with people detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Over the past month, 123 would-be asylum-seekers -- from Central and South America, Mexico, China and India -- have been detained in a Federal Correctional Institution facility in Sheridan, about 60 miles southwest of Portland, the Oregonian reported.
The detainees -- being held on alleged violations of Trump's "zero tolerance" policy, which U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions began implementing in May -- aren't being properly treated, the Democrats claimed.
Merkley said the immigrants arrived from various countries and, among other things, were fleeing political and religious persecution, as well as “the impact of organized crime.”
There was “a lot of concern about legal representation,” Merkley added, specifying that many of detainees hadn’t yet gotten to talk with a lawyer.
The immigrants were also having difficulty contacting family members, including their children, he said.
The separation of immigrant children from their parents at the border has drawn a good deal of criticism, targeting the policy instituted last month by Sessions. That policy says that any adult who enters the U.S. illegally is to be criminally prosecuted.
U.S. protocol does not allow children to be detained with their parents because they, unlike their moms and dads, aren't charged with a crime.
In the detention center, there was also a “lack of translators,” Merkley said, and a sense of “uncertainty.”
“Many of them, virtually all of them, had no information about what comes next, so a lot of uncertainty and stress that comes from that,” the senator said, adding that the detainees were “basically in limbo.”
He later declared that the Trump administration’s justification for the policy was “morally bankrupt.”
Wyden told reporters that what the group “saw over the last hour demonstrates that the Trump zero tolerance policy makes zero sense and shows zero understanding of American values.”
After speaking to detainees, including one individual who was separated from a child younger than 2 years old, Wyden said he left “with a sense” that “the detainee rights are rights in name only.”
“America and Oregon are better than this. We are better than this,” Wyden said. “All we’ve had in America, a system where we examine the specifics of an individual’s circumstance. Look at the case, there’s an allegation of law-breaking, we follow that up. But we don’t just lump and dump. And that is my sense of what this policy is all about.”
The immigration policy enforced by the administration “is not what we stand for as the United States of America,” Bonamici told reporters. She said the detainees, who “are fearing for their lives” deserve more than how they’ve been treated.
“As a parent listening to the fathers talk about not knowing where their young children are, not knowing where their spouse or partner is and not knowing when they can talk to a lawyer, when they can get medical care, is just devastating and completely unacceptable,” Bonamici said.
In an at times emotional statement, Blumenauer said this was "a shameful moment in our history.”
“The notion that we're gonna criminalize being persecuted and we’re gonna try and enforce it by yanking children from their family and sending them God knows where … it’s abhorrent,” he said. “And I don’t care whether you’re Republican or Democrat, what you think about immigration, whether we’ve got too much or not enough, nobody should treat children like that.”
He later added that the immigration policy “has struck a chord” and had the potential to “help some of my Republican friends grow a spine and stand up to Donald Trump.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.