Fresh off visit to border in Texas, Kuster questions Trump plans to reunite immigrant families
Congresswoman Annie Kuster says she’s concerned the Trump administration doesn’t have a plan in place to reunite immigrant children separated from their parents after being caught trying to cross the U.S.-Mexican border.
The congresswoman from New Hampshire’s 2nd District – fresh off a trip to an immigration detention facility on the Texas border – scolded House Republican leaders for preventing a vote on a bipartisan immigration bill that she supports.
“There is a bipartisan solution. Let it come to the floor,” she pleaded.
Kuster spoke with the Monitor on Monday following her trip Saturday to the McAllen Border Patrol Station, the McAllen Centralized Process Center and an U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility just outside of Brownsville, Texas.
She was one of two dozen congressional Democrats on the trip that she said left her “definitely shaken.”
“I was distressed and it was heart-wrenching,” she said. “It was a heartbreaking experience.”
Kuster described the detention facility as “a prison, run by immigration.”
She said she and the other lawmakers met with 40 women who “all had their children taken away from them. Two of the women had been breast-feeding 5- and 6-month-old babies when they were taken.”
Kuster said the women were distraught.
“Most of them had not had contact. ... They had no way to locate their children,” she said. “They had no idea where they had been taken.”
Kuster said the children had been scattered across the country.
“By the end of this visit, they were all crying. We were all crying,” she said. “It was a very, very difficult experience.”
The Trump administration’s separation of immigrant families on the border has dominated news coverage the past two weeks. It’s fueled protests from immigrant and children’s advocates and many Democratic lawmakers.
Over the past month, more than 2,300 children were taken from their families under a “zero-tolerance” policy in which people entering the U.S. illegally face prosecution.
President Donald Trump last Wednesday issued an executive order ending the family separation. And the Trump administration said over the weekend that 500 children had been reunited with their families.
Still, Kuster questioned the administration’s long-term plans.
“I don’t know that this administration has any plan in place for the reunification,” she said. “The officials that we met and spoke with at the border seemed compassionate but seemed very confused. They told us they need further direction. They have no idea how the change in policy will be implemented.”
New Hampshire’s senior U.S. senator – Democrat Jeanne Shaheen – on Friday urged Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen to resign unless she promptly implements a plan to reunite children separated from their parents at the southern border.
Kuster agreed: “Yes, somebody needs to be held accountable.”
“Nobody should have taken anybody’s child away without a plan in place for the ultimate reunification. And the barbaric nature of this is that they are deporting people back to their home country without their children,” she said.
But she also voiced worries that a Nielsen resignation “would slow things down.”
The president has repeatedly said that the process of separating families was implemented by the Obama administration and blamed Democrats for “loopholes” that necessitated splitting up families.
But Kuster forcefully pushed back on Trump’s claim.
“This is a dramatic change in policy,” Kuster said. “I know there’s a lot being said, that ‘this has always been done this way.’ It’s not ever been done this way. They are criminally prosecuting people at the border for this misdemeanor illegal entry.”
The Department of Justice on Thursday urged a federal district court to alter a decades-old court settlement that prohibits the federal government from keeping children in immigration detention centers for more than 20 days. The agreement, which is known as the Flores settlement, was drafted two decades ago.
“To me that’s what’s going to be the equivalent of what we did to Japanese in the internment camps,” Kuster said. “I think this could go from horrifying to even worse in that they may try to keep people together, but they’re going to be in indefinite detention. It’s inhumane and un-American.”
Trump on Sunday compared people entering the U.S. from Mexico with invaders and said they should be immediately sent back without appearing before a judge as part of due process.
“We cannot allow all of these people to invade our country,” the president wrote on Twitter. “When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no judges or court cases, bring them back from where they came. Our system is a mockery to good immigration policy and law and order.”
Kuster said there’s room for a bipartisan solution.
“I think we need strong borders and I think we need to have criteria,” she said. “I actually support bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform, similar to what Kelly Ayotte and John McCain and Jeanne Shaheen voted for in the Senate five years ago.”
Kuster claimed that if the House GOP leadership allowed a vote on the measure, it “would frankly pass Congress tomorrow.”
But Kuster disagreed with Rep. Maxine Waters. The Democratic congresswoman from California on Saturday urged supporters at a rally to confront Trump Cabinet officials in public spaces like restaurants and department stores to protest the administration’s policies.
Nielsen was confronted last week at a Mexican restaurant in the nation’s capital by demonstrators yelling “shame.” And White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was recently asked by the owners of a restaurant in Lexington, Va., to leave because of her role in the Trump administration.
“I’m a public official. I think we need to tone down the rhetoric,” Kuster said. “I think we need to have a rational dialogue.”
But she added that “I think the spokesperson (Sanders) needs to stand by her words. She hasn’t been entirely truthful to the American people.”