Congressman meets two teens separated from parents at migrant children's shelter in Pleasant Hill

- Days after accusing the government of denying him access, East Bay Congressman Mark DeSaulnier on Monday toured a local children’s shelter that is housing two adolescent girls who were separated from their parents by the Trump administration at the U.S.-Mexico border.

After meeting two teenage girls who were separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border in May, East Bay Congressman Mark DeSaulnier said he was satisfied with the migrant shelter they were staying in and he blamed The Trump administration for “creating hysteria” in this country. 

This was his first visit at the center. 

“I can report that the problem is not the Pleasant Hill facility, but the Trump Administration,” DeSaulnier tweeted on Monday. “The way this Administration has treated families and children is inhumane and will go down in history as a national disgrace.”

The Southwest Key center in Pleasant Hill is a small non-descript brown house with an American flag in the suburbs. DeSaulnier was allowed in without cameras and  described briefly what he saw: A “well-staffed” group home with a “well-stocked” kitchen and two classrooms. In addition to the two “shy” teen girls separated from their parents under Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy, there were 23 other unaccompanied minors at the shelter, all in various stages of legal limbo as they await court hearings to determine whether they can formally gain entry into the United States.

Southwest Key is a Texas-based nonprofit organization that has operated shelters and detention facilities for immigrant youth since 1987. It has operated mostly in the shadows for years, but has recently been thrust into the limelight because some of the 2,000 children separated from their parents at the border were sent there. 

In May, Attorney General Jeff Sessions that the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security will partner to prosecute anyone illegally crossing the southwest border and separate children from parents.

 

"If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It's that simple," Sessions said. "If you smuggle illegal aliens across our border, then we will prosecute you. If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don't like that, then don't smuggle children over our border."

But there was a national uprising, including from Republicans, about separating families, and so Trump reversed that decision. A federal judge in San Diego ordered children under 5 to be reunited with their families as of Tuesday. The government will make half of that deadline. A total of 54 children will be reunited by 48 will not because of logistical reasons. Older children must be reunited by the end of the month.

Southwest Key reported in August 2016 that operates in seven states: California, Arizona, Texas, Georgia, Florida, Wisconsin, and in Goshen, New York, with annual revenues of $242 million in 2016.

Southwest Key describes itself as "one of the largest providers of services to unaccompanied children in the U.S. As of mid-2018, it houses 5,100 immigrant children. Southwest Key also provides youth justice alternative programming and educational programming. 

On its website, it states it is “committed to keeping kids out of institutions and at home with their families. It also states that  "Southwest Key Programs does not support separating families at the border.” 

It took DeSaulnier two weeks to visit the center, three miles from his district office. First reported by the Bay Area News Group, the congressman said he was told he could visit two weeks ago, before being told he couldn’t. Then he wrote a letter to the Office of Refugee Settlement, and the story hit the news.

“Friday were were told we could go in,” he said, attributing the change in heart due to media and public pressure. 

“The process for requesting this tour was disorganized, took multiple weeks, and it appeared that the administration was doing everything possible to discourage members from visiting facilities in and around their districts,” DeSaulnier tweeted after the visit.

As for the girls, DeSaulnier said that they get to speak to their parents by phone regularly. It’s unclear what the holdup is in reuniting them. 
 

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