Democratic lawmakers meet detained asylum seekers on Father's Day, call for end of family separation policy

The group visited the Elizabeth Contract Detention Facility in New Jersey.

June 17, 2018, 4:33 PM

A group of Democratic lawmakers toured an immigration detention facility in New Jersey Sunday, meeting with detained asylum seekers who have been separated from their families under the Trump administration’s "zero tolerance" immigration policy.

"Today, on Father’s day, we spoke to fathers whose children have been ripped from their arms, who have no idea when or if they will see their children again," Rep. Jerrold Nadler said during a press conference with reporters after the surprise visit.

The House Judiciary Committee Ranking member led the group of seven lawmakers — including Reps. Frank Pallone and Bill Pascrell of New Jersey, and Reps. Albio Sires, Carolyn Maloney, Hakeem Jeffries and Adriano Espaillat of New York — for the excursion to the Elizabeth Contract Detention Facility in New Jersey.

The House members lambasted immigration officials for delaying their entry into the facility to meet with those caught illegally crossing the southern U.S. border and torn from their families as part of the administration's new approach on illegal immigration.

PHOTO: Rep. Bill Pascrell waits to be let in to inspect the ICE detention center in Elizabeth, N. J., June 17, 2018.
Rep. Bill Pascrell waits to be let in to inspect the ICE detention center in Elizabeth, N. J., June 17, 2018.

On April 6, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in a Justice Department memo that the Trump administration was implementing a "zero-tolerance" immigration policy.

The policy of treating people who try to illegally cross the border as criminals and thus separating them from their children went into effect in May, according to the Associated Press. From April 19 to May 31, 1,995 children were separated from 1,940 adults, according to Homeland Security statistics cited by the AP.

Nadler called out Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials and the local police department on Twitter for delaying the group and using "stalling tactics."

Maloney added in a tweet that they were "made to wait for over an hour" after dealing with "local PD."

Pascrell detailed how the facility staff was covering the windows to prevent members of the press from taking photos, but he warned, "We’ll tell everything we’ve seen inside."

A spokesman for ICE's Newark office said the facility, despite being surprised, worked with the members of Congress.

"The congressional reps showed up unannounced at the facility and were accommodated so they were able to meet with several ICE detainees," the spokesman, with ICE's enforcement and removal operations, said.

The band of lawmakers said it was after banging on the door, and speaking with ICE officials over the phone, that they were granted access to meet with the detained individuals, who Nadler later said during a press conference, "came to this country in search of the protection and refuge that the proud inscription on the Statue of Liberty promises to those fleeing terror."

But he asserted, "Instead, they are being welcome by more terror."

Over a roaring crowd of protesters, Pascrell told reporters, "We will have zero tolerance for anything that deviates from that inscription on the Statue of Liberty."

Sires, who immigrated to this country when he was 11 years old, shared some of the stories of the detainees with reporters and protesters standing outside of the facility. Among the asylum seekers the group met, one individual was separated from his 7-year-old brother and another individual came with his 5-year-old daughter who was taken from him while he was sleeping. He begged and cried as U.S. officials took her away, according to their accounts.

"It’s pretty heart wrenching what I saw in there," he said. "I came to this country when I was 11 years old, that’s not the country that I can remember that’s in there."

PHOTO: Central American asylum seekers wait as U.S. Border Patrol agents take groups of them into custody, June 12, 2018, near McAllen, Texas.
Central American asylum seekers wait as U.S. Border Patrol agents take groups of them into custody, June 12, 2018, near McAllen, Texas.
John Moore/Getty Images

"One individual, they took his daughter away from him, she may be in Michigan, he hasn’t heard from her," the New Jersey congressman said. "The other individual, he can’t go back to his country because he was being harassed by gang members and he had to take his daughter. They went to his house, they went to her school. That’s why he decided to come to this country."

The people in the facility, according to Pallone, came to the United States because "they were being persecuted, and they came with their kids, this is Father’s Day, they came with their kids to protect them."

The group, who visited the detention facility to "mitigate the horrors of the Trump administration’s cruel, inhuman and un-American family separation policy," Nadler said, pressed the White House to end its enforcement of an immigration policy that separates families.

"This must not be — must not be — who we are as a nation," he urged. "That is why we have come here today, in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, to stand with those who merely seek refuge in our country. To stand with those who’ve had their small children ripped from their arms and taken away from them, to stand with those who don’t where their children are ... and to shine a light on the cruel and inhumane policies that are tearing families apart."

Jeffries added, "We will not rest until we shut that policy down."

"We have a message for the president," he said. "The Republicans control the House of Representatives, the Senate and the presidency. Stop lying to the American people, this is your policy and you are the one who we will force to shut this down."

House Democrats are planning to introduce legislation on Tuesday to stop the family separation policy.

ABC News' Samantha Reilly contributed to this report.

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