Politics & Government

A Congressman was denied entrance to a child detention facility. Now he’s praising it

Rep. Jeff Denham was so pleased with a California immigrant detention facility Monday that he said he’d be willing to have his own children stay there.

It was a big contrast from earlier this month, when the California Republican was denied access to the facility.

The remaining children there Monday had come to the United States without their parents — they were not separated by federal officials at the border. One girl he spoke with had come in a cargo truck with a mass of people.

“It’s very obvious these kids have been through a lot,” Denham said.

The two adolescent girls who had been separated from their parents and were at the facility the first time the congressman visited have since been reunited with their families, Denham said.

His biggest surprise was that about two-thirds of the 25 children in the facility, between ages 10 and 17, were Indian. One 16-year-old he spoke with flew to Mexico City from New Delhi on his own.

Denham said he spoke to the children personally.

“It was well-kept, very clean and orderly, they had their own beds and two to a room,” Denham described to McClatchy in a phone call, as media were not permitted to join inside. “They go on weekly field trips and had just gone to a university this week.”

The children could also roam around the facility and outside and went to class every day from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

It was a different picture from photos that surfaced months ago of handfuls of children fenced in, lying on mats with space blankets to keep warm. Reports of other facilities have said children are not allowed to leave the premises, and leaked audio from one facility featured multiple children crying for their parents.

However, Denham said while his concerns about the conditions of the child detention facilities have been alleviated, he still feels the Department of Homeland Security needs to answer questions on the children’s next stop.

One of the girls he spoke with knew family members in Houston, and he said it wasn’t clear why she was being held in Pleasant Hill, California rather than a Texas facility.

“We need full transparency and we’re not getting it,” Denham said. “I want to know how many unaccompanied minors are coming in, how long they stay in these facilities, how many are sent to foster care, how many are sent to family members and how soon they’re getting court dates. Those questions haven’t been answered.”

On July 2, Denham had stood outside the same facility knocking for about five minutes before a security guard told him the employees inside had been instructed not to speak to him or let him inside.

Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-California, who represents the district where the detention facility is located, visited the facility earlier this month with two other members of Congress. He was also denied at first, but after touring said it reminded him of other group homes he’s visited while in office.

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, who were 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 month that all children separated under the policy needed to be reunited with their parents by the end of last week. The Trump administration has since ended the zero tolerance policy, citing the need for Congress to change the law so children and parents can be detained together.

While Denham said he believes Congress will pass something to correct the issue of child separations at the border, neither the House nor the Senate has put forth a bill with a realistic chance of passing yet. The House is on recess until September.

Department of Justice officials testified in federal court Friday that all minor immigrant children eligible to be reunited with their parents have been reunited.

Of the 2,551 children reportedly separated from their parents at the border, 1,820 were reunited with their parents or other guardians by the end of the day Friday, 20 were found to have not been separated and 711 were not eligible for reunification, according to court documents.

The Department of Justice counsel testified that the number of children not eligible for reunification had dropped to 650 since the government filed those documents.

Of those not eligible, 431 were due to the parent being deported from the United States. Another 94 were deemed ineligible due to the federal government not knowing the adult’s location, but the Justice counsel testified that number had decreased to 35.

Jeff Eller, a spokesman for Southwest Key Programs, which runs the Pleasant Hill facility under contract with the federal government, said he could not give any information on the facility. He referred all questions to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

ORR did not respond to a request for comment.

Kate Irby: 202-383-6071; @KateIrby