Democratic Rep. Juan Vargas, while calling the policy of separating children from parents “monstrous,” said Monday it won’t be the deterrent to immigration that the Trump administration seeks.
“I don’t think it does anything to keep people from coming here, frankly. You heard the conditions that they are living under,” the San Diegan said at a press conference with 13 other members of Congress, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, on a tour of four local detention centers.
Vargas, whose district includes the border, helped organize the tours that were in response to the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” prosecution policy being carried by the Department of Homeland Security.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the changes at the border fence last month.
The lawmakers, who are calling for an end to the policy, want to draw attention to the child detentions. They said they were told the number of separated children could reach 30,000 by August.
The policy aims to prosecute all suspected border-crossers, including adults traveling with children. Federal authorities said Friday that government officials had separated 1,995 children from parents facing criminal prosecution for unlawfully crossing the border over a six-week period that ended last month.
“Tearing a child away from a mom when that mother is just trying to provide a better life for that child is a monstrous thing to do,” Vargas said.
Rep. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana, described the asylum seeker’s conditions in their countries: “When these kids are growing up in Central America, they’re given a choice. At a certain age, you either join a gang, MS-13 that the President talks about, or you die. They pick a third, which is go north in search of possibly a survival alternative.”
Congress members visited unaccompanied minors and children separated from parents, ages 6 to 17.
Pelosi said, “It is a heartbreaking, barbaric issue that could be changed in a moment by the president of the United States rescinding his action.”
A mother of five and grandmother of nine, Pelosi referred to family separation not as an immigrant issue, but as a humanitarian crisis.
“I know that these people in Congress and in the administration are parents, that they understand the damage that’s being done when stress is exacted on children by separating them from their families,” Pelosi said in San Ysidro. “Do they think these children deserve less than their children do in terms of care and love?”
Trump has repeatedly falsely claimed that Democrats are to blame for a law requiring the separation of immigrant children from their families, although he has never cited the exact law and critics insist that no such legislation exists.
The blame, critics and Democrats say, lies solely with the Trump administration, which initiated the family separations through the enforcement of its “zero-tolerance” policy.
Speaking at a White House event Monday, Trump called the family separates “sad,” again insisting “we’re stuck with these horrible laws.”
“If the Democrats would sit down instead of obstructing, we could have something done very quickly,” he said. “Good for the children, good for the country, good for the world.”
At the San Diego press conference, Rep. Judy Chu, of San Gabriel Valley, chair of the congressional Asian-Pacific caucus rebuked the president.
“Trump started this and Trump can end this,” Chu said. “He should not be using these children as a bargaining chip for what he wants in an immigration bill – a big border wall.”
Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, speaking of asylum seeking based on gang violence said, “Every single one of us would run from in order to protect our children, we reject them and then inflict pain by separating them from their children.”
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was also defiant as she spoke at a conference in New Orleans, saying the agency “will not apologize for doing our job.”
She later again blamed Democrats for the situation, saying the loudest critics of what is occurring at the border “are those whose policies created this crisis.”
Four former first ladies — including Republican Laura Bush — have publicly denounced the policy of separating families. Bush wrote an opinion piece published Sunday in the Washington Post in which she called the policy “immoral.”
“Our government should not be in the business of warehousing children in converted box stores or making plans to place them in tent cities in the desert outside of El Paso,” Bush wrote.
Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego, spoke on the House floor Thursday to demand an end to the policy.
“In our country, family is an institution,” Peters said. “Today, family — that concept — is being torn apart and challenged at our own borders.”
Calling the Justice Department guidelines a “zero inhumanity policy, Grisham said, “They are immorally using children, purposely enacting harm. I can’t think of another country when we would stand idly by and allow that country to treat children in this cruel, inhumane, inappropriate manner.”
Rep. Susan Davis, who took part in the tour and co-sponsors HR 927 against the zero-tolerance policy, issued a statement.
“The United States should have a zero tolerance policy for the immoral treatment of children,” said Davis, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee.
“As a social worker who practiced in medical and psychiatric settings, particularly focusing on children and families, I can say the profound trauma these children are experiencing will cause immediate and long-lasting damage to them,” said Davis of the 53rd District.
— Chris Stone and City News Service contributed to this report.