When U.S. Rep. David Price visited Laredo, Texas, last weekend, he met a 36-year-old man who had fled gang violence in El Salvador.
The man had traveled nearly 1,500 miles to join his sister in the United States — risking his and his parents’ lives, Price said — and was in an immigration center.
In June U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said domestic and gang violence are not grounds for asylum.
“It is just one of the many heartless steps the Trump administration has taken to abandon the promise of America to be a source of refuge for those escaping persecution and oppression,” Price said.
After his visit, Price (D-NC) introduced three amendments to the Homeland Security appropriations bill restricting how federal money can be used to manage immigration. His amendment saying federal funds can’t be used to enforce Sessions’ policy on asylum passed.
The House and Senate must agree on a final version of the bill before sending it to the White House. The fact that that the Homeland Security subcommittee chairman and the House Appropriations committee chairman support Price’s amendment means it will likely stay in the bill, a spokesman for the congressman said.
On July 12 the Appropriations Committee passed another amendment Price co-sponsored that increased oversight and transparency on families separated by the Trump administration’s immigration policy.
President Donald Trump announced a “zero tolerance” policy at the Mexican border in early May, but ended the policy of separating families June 20 after a national outcry. A federal judge set a deadline that all children be reunited with their parents by Thursday and that all children under the age of 5 be reunited by July 10.
Nearly 3,000 children have been separated. As of Tuesday, 1,012 families had been reunited, but as many as 914 parents cannot be reunited with their children by the court date, according to CNN. These parents may have been deported or have serious criminal records, or be unable to be located.
The Herald-Sun spoke with Price on Thursday about his trip to Texas.
Q. You visited an immigration processing facility and an immigration detention facility. What did you see?
In Laredo, we visited the port-of-entry and went through step by step the way people are processed who are coming over legally, and then the center where people apprehended for coming over illegally are held.
In San Antonio, we were at the detention center where children are being kept, where they might have come over unaccompanied and turned themselves in or been apprehended, and then also children that were separated from their parents. ... And hopefully that is over, but there’s a lot of cleanup to do with respect to those cases, which of course should never have been created in the first place.
We talked to a number of young people who are at one stage or another in getting their cases resolved, hopefully. Some of them are very difficult cases.
The amendment that I offered and that we managed to get passed, was the direct result of one conversation I had where I realized that this attorney general’s directive, the narrowing of the grounds on which asylum claims can be pursued, was really going to affect most of these migrants from Central America.
What they’re fleeing is gang violence and domestic violence. That’s really what it’s all about in those countries, and it’s just outrageous and unacceptable that Attorney General Sessions would try to cut off that route of appeals for desperate people.
Q. Can you describe what these people are facing in these facilities?
The facilities in San Antonio are run by the local Catholic diocese, and I would say those people are doing the best they can. These are people who have fled, for the most part, from very violent situations. They and or their families have been threatened by gangs. There have been terrible domestic situations that have led the children to flee, and sometimes the children or one or more parents to flee. And so the prospect of going back to El Salvador or Guatemala or Honduras, those countries in particular, is not just frightening. It could be deadly.
Q. How was the San Antonio facility set up?
It’s a children’s home. It started out years ago as an orphanage. It was converted to handle this situation. It’s run by the Catholic diocese and the U.S. government. Our government is contracting with these, some for-profit but in the case of the unaccompanied children and separated children, mainly nonprofit groups.
Q. What’s going on in Congress overall to help with reuniting the families, both in terms of your amendments and any other efforts that are going on?
Well the two [successful] amendments that I did are both amendments to appropriations bills, which still have to go through the process. ... But in the meantime this is an emergency situation, so we can’t wait for this or any other legislation, so we’ve got to keep the pressure on.
The Trump administration did reverse the [separation] policy, I think, because of pressure not just from Congress, but from the American public. I think we do have some power here, to keep the spotlight on the situation, so that’s what we must do. And we need help from the press and from a lot of charitable groups, nonprofit groups that are doing good work. The heat needs to be kept on. I put a lot into getting these bills right. ... The device we have on appropriations is to say you’re not going to fund certain bad policies. You’re not going to fund these things.
Q. There have been reports of family separation and detention going back to the Obama administration. To what extent was Congress aware of similar situations going on before Trump’s zero tolerance policy?
Those accusations have been made, I realize, but I’d like to see the evidence. … It was in 2015, in fact, you can put a date on it, when the flow of unaccompanied children, and mothers with infants, often, started from Central America. That was a very distressing thing to watch.
The response was never to separate the children, never to separate the families, that was never Obama administration policy. But some of these families were detained, and there was a good deal of attention paid. I remember I went to Texas to look at one of those detention facilities to see if they were suitable for families.
There were issues raised and the Obama administration, in my experience, was far more responsive than the Trump administration has been. Of, course, they didn’t separate the kids in the first place.
And then there was the question of a situation in the home country, and that’s where the Obama administration also differed. We doubled the support for education and health care and criminal justice reform and law enforcement and gang control. Joe Biden, the vice president, led that effort, because we realized that simply dealing with people at the border is not a solution. You have to help secure their own countries and improve their own situations so they don’t flee in the first place.
So I would say the Obama administration approach, while it wasn’t perfect and required some oversight, was vastly superior to what we’re seeing with Trump.