Congressman Denied Entry to California Detention Facility for Children under Age 14
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Congressman Denied Entry to California Detention Facility for Children under Age 14

photo: Kitagaki Jr.

The cry of a child could be heard just inside the nondescript, brown detention facility in Pleasant Hill, California, a San Francisco suburb, and Rep. Jeff Denham wanted to see for himself what was inside.

He knocked on the door and waited about five minutes, alternatively silent, knocking some more and asking the security guard if employees inside were aware he was out there. The guard eventually told him the employees inside had been instructed to not answer the door, not to even speak to him.

He'd been trying for more than a week to tour the facility. Monday, he stood frustrated outside the building strung with Christmas lights. Uneven hopscotch and tic-tack-toe boards were drawn in chalk in the parking lot, and a church and Christian elementary school sat right next to it. Notices that the building was surrounded by security cameras were posted on multiple walls outside.

The facility, Denham said, was detaining immigrant children ages 13 and younger. He said he was told that there were 25 children inside, and two girls had been separated from their parents. He had been told as recently as Friday that he was cleared to go in, he said, but the facility changed their tune over the weekend.

"Obviously, we want to know the plan to reunify those kids back with their parents," Denham said Monday, outside the facility.

Denham, who faces one of the nation's most competitive re-election battles this year, said he made the journey to the center to see conditions for himself as Congress considers immigration legislation and confronts the outcry over separated families.

He said he worked with multiple parts of President Donald Trump's administration, including the White House and the Department of Homeland Security, to gain access to the facility.

The facility is run by Southwest Key Programs, a nonprofit being paid by the federal government to care for the children.

Jeff Eller, a spokesman for Southwest Key Programs, told McClatchy Monday that all requests to tour facilities had to go through the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He declined to say on the record if they had received anything from ORR regarding Denham's visit.

Eller said Southwest Key currently runs about 26 such facilities, with locations in California, Arizona and Texas, and more than 76 members of Congress had been cleared and toured facilities within the past two weeks.

ORR is the agency that has the authority to approve tours, Eller said, and Southwest Key cannot allow anyone in the facility who ORR has not expressly approved.

Denham said Southwest Key requested two weeks notice before Denham was allowed to tour the building, but would not explain why it needed that kind of time to prepare. Denham didn't want to wait because Congress would be back in session and trying to legislate on the issue by the time two weeks passed.

"They knew that we were coming," Denham said. "We knew cameras most likely wouldn't be allowed in, but if they wanted to show the conditions, and what a lovely facility they run, then why wouldn't they want people to come in and report on it?"

Two employees of the facility outside declined to be identified. One said he was a security guard, while the other, who went inside and brought Denham a list of numbers he could call to discuss a visit, said he was "nobody" and worked in landscaping.

The number of immigrant children being separated from their parents skyrocketed due to a combination of President Donald Trump's policies and existing law. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in April there was now a "zero tolerance" policy at the border, which meant all immigrants, even those seeking asylum, caught outside ports of entry would be charged with a crime.

Existing law only allows the detention of children in specific situations, but typically immigrant children are required to be held in the least restrictive facility possible and even then can only be held for a maximum of 20 days. So as parents were detained by the thousands, children were separated from them by the thousands.

A federal judge in California ruled last week that all children separated under the policy needed to be reunited with their parents within 30 days. Those under 5 years old needed to be reunited in 14 days, he said.

About 2,000 children were separated from their parents since the zero tolerance policy was implemented, according to June 20 figures released by the Department of Homeland Security, and more than 500 have been reunited with their parents or guardians.

Trump, after blaming Democrats for weeks for the policy and saying he could not change it without congressional action, relented last week and signed an executive order that halts the separation of families. The zero tolerance policy is still in effect, according to his administration, but allows the children and parents to be detained in the same facilities.

Some have questioned whether the executive order is legally sound.

Immigration legislation pushed by Denham that failed in the House last week would have changed the law to allow families to be detained together, as Trump's executive order now says. Trump has continued to say congressional action is needed on the issue.

"We're going to be writing the laws that affect the entire country," Denham said outside the facility Monday. "If you don't know the current conditions, or the process for reuniting these kids with their parents, it makes it much more difficult to craft a bipartisan bill that will address this going forward."

Denham is one of the few Republican members of Congress to visit one of the child detention facilities. Such visits have been more common among Democrats. Reps. Mike Coffman, R-Colorado, Roger Marshall, R-Kansas, Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pennsylvania, and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, have visited facilities.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, led a group of Democrats along with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to visit another California facility in San Diego in mid-June. Pelosi called what she saw "heartbreaking" and a "humanitarian crisis" and called for it to be "changed immediately."

That facility was also run by Southwest Key Programs.

In Denham's home district in Modesto, businessman Josh Harder, his Democratic opponent, was part of a march to protest the mistreatment of immigrant families over the weekend. It was one of hundreds of nationwide protests against the separation of immigrant families.

Harder told McClatchy Monday that the only way to truly change the problems such as family separations and broken immigration was to change who is in Congress.

"Denham visiting a child detention center is yet another page out of his playbook: A well-publicized visit where do-nothing Denham talks and gets attention for himself but doesn’t deliver," Harder said of Denham's Monday visit.

Denham said he planned to try returning to the child detention facility before Congress is back in session next week.

Author: The Sacramento Bee