When Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley tried to visit a detention center for child immigrants in Brownsville, Texas, last weekend, he was turned away. The Facebook Live video of his journey through the bureaucratic shadows went viral. In the 20 hours after it was shared, it was viewed 1.1 million times.
As viral videos go, it was rather low-drama: it mostly featured Merkley standing around in the hot Texas sun for almost a half hour, waiting for a supervisor of the nonprofit Southwest Key shelter to come tell him why he could not enter the facility. One high point was when the senator inadvertently shared his personal cell-phone number with his million-plus viewers, trying to get someone in authority to return his call.
“I think it’s unacceptable that a member of Congress is not being admitted to see what’s happening to children whose families are applying for asylum,” Merkley told the cameras while he waited. “Can you imagine? You come to this strange land.… You’re seeking asylum, and the first thing that happens when you get here is you’re torn away from your parents?… America has never done this before!… The intention is to hurt the children, cause the children trauma and discourage people from seeking asylum in the United States of America.”
Eventually, the site supervisor came out—to get the local police to tell Merkley he had to leave the property. Merkley politely complied.
Not surprisingly, the White House quickly trashed the Oregon Democrat. “Senator Merkley is irresponsibly spreading blatant lies about routine immigration enforcement while smearing hard-working, dedicated law enforcement officials at ICE and CBP,” read a statement from Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley. “No one is taking a public safety lecture from Sen. Merkley,” it added, “whose own policies endanger children, empower human smugglers and drug cartels, and allow violent criminal aliens to flood into American communities.” The statement went on to blame Merkley for crimes committed by an immigrant in Oregon that took place before Merkley was even elected to the Senate.
Maybe more disappointing, The Washington Post fact checker gave Merkley “three Pinocchios” for saying that it was Department of Health and Human Services policy “not to admit anyone into these centers.” Officials claim that they will consider admitting members of Congress to inspect the facility if given two weeks notice, although Merkley says he is not aware that any member of Congress has asked for or been given such access. Merkley said he was told he might be allowed in with two weeks’ notice, but was not promised it. At a time when the Trump administration has made it policy to rip immigrant children as young as 13 months old away from their parents and warehouse them in undisclosed locations, one of our nation’s greatest newspapers decided to give the White House the benefit of the doubt on its inspection policy, while essentially calling a respected Democratic senator a liar. Democracy dies in darkness, indeed—but it also dies when journalists swallow the unproven assertions of administration flacks and trash a senator for doing his job.