A Democratic senator who recorded his dramatic, unsuccessful effort to enter a federal immigration facility in Texas on video over the weekend was "irresponsibly spreading blatant lies about routine immigration enforcement," the White House said Monday.
And in a separate statement, the Department of Homeland Security seemingly contradicted Sen. Jeff Merkley's suggestion that he was being systematically barred from immigrant detention centers, saying federal officials took extra steps to grant him access to one on Sunday.
In footage uploaded to Facebook late Sunday and seen by more than a million viewers, Merkley, D-Ore., approached the Office of Refugee Resettlement facility in Brownsville, Texas, after remarking that the government's treatment of children illegally entering the U.S. was "unacceptable."
Merkley then tried to follow somebody into the building, before being told that he was on "private property" and should "please go away." The facility, run by a contractor, is in a former Walmart with blacked-out windows.
While he waited outside, Merkley called a number linked to the detention center and demanded an in-person tour of the facility. He then announced to the camera, "Well, she just hung up on me." Eventually, the police arrived and started taking Merkley's information, before turning him away.
"And the attorney general's team, and the Office of Refugee Resettlement, they don't want anyone to know about what's going on behind these doors," Merkley told a police officer.
The Trump administration, which has called it "horrible" that illegal immigrant children are separated from their parents when their parents enter criminal proceedings, has been criticized in recent weeks for increasing the proseuctions of illegal immigrants under a "zero-tolerance" policy that critics say leads to those separations.
But the White House made it clear that it viewed Merkley's effort as a hollow stunt.
"Senator Merkley is irresponsibly spreading blatant lies about routine immigration enforcement while smearing hardworking, dedicated law enforcement officials at ICE and CBP," deputy White House press secretary Hogan Gidley told Fox News.
"He voted against closing the 'catch-and-release' loopholes used by child smugglers, and his reckless open borders policies are responsible for the permanent separation of thousands of American families who have been forced to bury their loved ones," Gidley added. "No one is taking a public safety lecture from Sen. Merkley, whose own policies endanger children, empower human smugglers and drug cartels, and allow violent criminal aliens to flood into American communities."
Also on Monday, the Department of Homeland Security said it had accomodated Merkley's request to visit a secure immigration facility where children were being held, despite logistical challenges.
"We appreciate the Senator’s interest in the subject, and are happy to provide him with an understanding of the immigration process: DHS follows the laws passed by Congress and processes alien children safely and humanely," DHS press secretary Tyler Houlton said in a statement to Fox News. "Contrary to any misinformation campaign, the safety of children is paramount for DHS.
"At 2pm on a Friday, the Senator asked to visit a secure DHS facility over the weekend where children are present and we worked with him to provide him access," Houlton added. "This presented obvious and serious privacy concerns – not to mention disrupting operations. He was able to visit the facility on Sunday."
"Senator Merkley is irresponsibly spreading blatant lies about routine immigration enforcement."
Merkley previously claimed he saw caged children at another Texas detention facility.
Last week, President Trump slammed Democrats who shared pictures of child migrants sleeping in cages to knock his immigration policies, only to backtrack after realizing the photos were taken during the Obama administration.
"When I was at the center at McAllen Border Station, this is the processing center, earlier and I was admitted there and I did see the people, hundreds of children locked up in cages there at that facility," Merkley said in an interview with CNN. "They have big cages made out of fencing and then wire and nets stretched across the top of them so people can't climb out of them."
At various points in the video uploaded to Facebook, Merkley made broad political points, alternately to the camera and to responding law enforcement officers.
"Every American citizen has a stake in how these children are being treated and how this policy is being enacted," Merkley said in the Facebook video.
In a statement to Fox News, Merkley Communications Director Ray Zaccaro shot back at the White House and insisted on more transparency.
“The White House is smearing Senator Merkley because they can’t defend their indefensible policy of snatching children from their parents," Zaccaro said. "Senator Merkley and his staff saw children in cages yesterday at the DHS processing center. We still have no idea what’s happening in the detention center where reportedly up to a thousand children are being held, since they refused the Senator’s request to go inside."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.