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Government & Politics

A Conversation With Chris Van Hollen: ‘The Country Has Been Crying Out’

Editor’s Note: On Sunday, U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) took part in a congressional fact-finding trip to the U.S.-Mexico border. On Wednesday afternoon he discussed the trip and the Trump administration’s child separation policy with Maryland Matters reporter Bruce DePuyt. The conversation took place just prior to Trump’s executive order Wednesday ending the White House policy of separating migrant parents from their children.  What follows is a lightly edited transcript of their conversation.  Maryland Matters: Tell us what you saw on your trip. Also, were there places you wanted to go that the government wouldn’t allow you to enter? Sen. Chris Van Hollen: First, let me just say I thought it was important to go to the border to see first-hand what was happening. We had heard all these awful reports. I thought it was important to get on the ground and find out if they were true. And what we saw confirmed my worst suspicions about what was happening. The first stop was the Ursula Processing Center in McAllen, Texas. And when you walk into that place, you’re immediately confronted with these large pens made of chain link fence, and they’ve separated the kids from the parents. It’s locally referred to as the dog kennel. We were not allowed to talk to the kids there. We were allowed to talk to one of the moms. She had been detained and was going to be prosecuted. She did not know where her 12-year-old daughter was.   Sen. Chris Van Hollen  This is the place where kids are separated from their parents. We didn’t see anyone being snatched from a mother’s arms while we were there, but this is the place were that separation occurs. It’s one of the main places. The most illuminating moments of the trip were when we actually got to talk to people. The last place we visited was the Port Isabel Detention Center. That’s where people are taken after they’re released from their sentencing for crossing the border and are being held pending either deportation or their asylum hearing. So there we talked to 10 moms who were really — it was really tough to take — because these were moms who were incredibly distraught. They were overcome with emotion. They were crying. All 10 of them had had their children taken away. Some knew where their kids were; some did not. But it really brought home the cruelty of what was happening at the border. We had a number of other stops in between. We visited the bridge crossing —it’s called the Hidalgo Crossing. And it’s the bridge over the Rio Grande that people come across. And when [Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen M.] Neilsen tells the public that we welcome people to come through the legal ports of entry, the reality is they’ve effectively shut those down for people seeking asylum. They’ve made it very difficult to get across.   The other stop I should mention is the converted Walmart in Brownsville where they have 1,200 kids, age 10 years old and up. It’s just a huge place packed with kids and they’ve been there for varying amounts of time. There the kids stay until they have a placement, either with extended relatives or foster care. We were not allowed to talk to the children there. You asked where we were not allowed to go. They haven’t given us the names and locations of the places where the younger kids are being held, those under 10. We are in the process of trying to track down more information on those places the younger kids who’ve been separated from their parents are being held. It’s a brutal policy. It’s obviously something that President Trump put in place six weeks ago and he could end it today. We’ll have to see what’s in his executive order.  MM: Is he just flat-out lying when he says that they’re following a law put in place by Democrats? Van Hollen: That’s a total fabrication. It’s a total fabrication. I don’t care how many times he says it. And one of the positive developments of this is how the press reports on Trump now. The articles say “and he made the false statement that…”  It’s just such a blatant falsehood. They put the policy in place six weeks ago; they could get rid of it any time.  MM:  How do they not grant people like you, the representatives of the American people, the ability to go anywhere and see anything? Van Hollen: Well, it’s interesting you ask. We’re actually working right now to put some language in some appropriations bills that we’re going to be voting on shortly, to address the issue.  [Editor’s note: Van Hollen’s office announced Thursday afternoon that he had successfully inserted language in an appropriations measure making it easier for members of Congress to help family members find their relatives who have gone missing in these government raids. The Brownsville facility, my colleague [Sen.] Jeff Merkeley (D-Ore.) had been down there two weeks before and they had denied him entry. They told him they require two weeks’ notice. And that’s what they’re hiding behind. It’s really outrageous and we’re going to be working on some legislative changes.  MM:  I saw that on the news and I was disappointed that he didn’t stand there and say “let me in; I’m not leaving until you let me in.” How do you get so close to such an outrageous, dire situation and not get in? Van Hollen: I give him credit for going down. He was able to go to some of the other places that he wanted to visit. But you’re right.  Just to be clear, this is a center being run by a non-profit, but they are taking their orders from the Department of Health and Human Services. The people who run the center were instructed not to let him in.  They realized it would not be a very good idea to deny us entry, and so we were able to get inside and visit that center, though we were not allowed to talk to the kids. And that’s pretty outrageous, especially when their argument is that they’re trying to protect the kids. MM: Do you worry that these children will suffer permanent psychological damage? Van Hollen: I do, because the experts have made it clear that they are likely to suffer from long-term trauma. And it makes common sense that if a child, especially a younger child, is ripped away from their parents, that it’s going to create a lot of trauma and that the trauma will be long-lasting. The head of the American Academy of Pediatrics called it child abuse. MM: What are you hearing from constituents? What kind of moment is this? Van Hollen: It’s an important moment where I think people around the country are asking, “Who are we? What do we stand for in the United States of America?” And I think the hopeful news is that the country has been crying out. We’ve been hearing from people who are just totally distraught. The outrage has been from across the political spectrum — for the most part. I guess with the exception of some Fox News shows, which have doubled-down in defending the president’s inhumane policies. MM: How were you affected by this? Van Hollen: It was really tough. All of us who went on this trip and listened to the moms were deeply affected by the experience and the emotions from the moms. All of us put ourselves in the shoes of these moms and realized the horror of what was happening to them. And the unnecessary cruelty inflicted by the policies of this administration.  [email protected]


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A Conversation With Chris Van Hollen: ‘The Country Has Been Crying Out’