Senate Democrats, including Blumenthal and Murphy, introduce bill to stop ‘neglectful treatment’ of children at border

Hartford Courant

U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy have joined more than three dozen Democrats supporting a bill that aims to put an end to the "cruel and neglectful treatment of children at the U.S.-Mexico border," and reform how youth seeking asylum are treated, the Connecticut Democrats said Wednesday.

"Through policies of fear and cruelty, this administration has caused irreparable damage to children at the border by separating families, denying them access to basic hygiene, and disregarding proper health and nutrition standards," Blumenthal and Murphysaid in a joint statement. "This legislation reaffirms our core American belief that we are a nation that welcomes and is strengthened by immigrants."

The comprehensive "Stop Cruelty to Migrant Children Act," which was originally introduced by a handful of Senate Democrats last Thursday, including Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York, outlines several "non-negotiable standards" to improve the current treatment of migrant children, among them the ending of family separations - with exceptions - the establishment of health and safety standards for those in Border Patrol stations and the removal of roadblocks to placing unaccompanied minors with sponsors.

The bill addresses the findings of a recent report by the Department of Homeland Security's independent watchdog that detailed extreme conditions at five separate detention centers at the border.

After inspectors visited the facilities in June, they concluded that at three of the centers, children had no access to showers and limited access to clothing, and that at two, youth had not been provided hot meals. All of the facilities were severely overcrowded, according to the report.

Family separations at the border would come to a close under the new legislation, except when authorized by a state court or child welfare agency, or when Customs and Border Protection and an independent child welfare specialist come to the agreement that a child is a trafficking victim, is not the child of the accompanying adults or is in danger of abuse.

The bill also requires that children and families have access to hygiene products, regular nutritious meals that meet U.S. Department of Agriculture standards and a prompt medical assessment by trained medical providers. Additionally, Democrats are looking to end for-profit contractors from operating new Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters or influx facilities, as well as expand alternative options to detention.

In order to remove existing roadblocks in the way of placing unaccompanied children with sponsors, the legislation would lower case manager caseloads, mandate lower staffing ratios and end the information sharing agreement between ORR and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Unaccompanied minors would also have access to legal counsel.

The bill faces an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Blumenthal toured a facility housing tent shelters used to hold separated family members in late June in El Paso, Texas where he then said, "I continue to be haunted by the eyes of a 2-year-old girl."

The Connecticut Democrat also criticized the immigration policies put forth by President Donald Trump — and said there was no clear path for those being held at the facilities moving forward.

"There is no plan for reunification," Blumenthal said during his June 22 visit. "There is no strategy to bring these children back to their parents."

Part of the reason Blumenthal is supporting the measure is because of what he witnessed during two visits to the border, he said Wednesday. The senator will be touring another detention center in coming days.

"I feel so deeply and passionately about the need to protect children from this unspeakable cruelty and humanity," Blumenthal said. "Having seen myself some of these detention facilities and how inhumane some are and also how children are separated from their parents, I believe we have a moral imperative to act."

Though the measure has only garnered Democratic support so far, and will likely face significant opposition from the other side of the aisle, Blumenthal said he is hopeful the cause will be bipartisan.

"There should be nothing politically controversial about basic health and nutrition standards, hygiene and family unity ... criteria that any civilized country should meet in dealing with anyone in its care," Blumenthal said. "I'm really hoping that there will be bipartisan support."

Once reports of the detention centers were released, national outrage followed. Across the country, including in Connecticut, activists gathered for the "Lights for Liberty" protest to demand change. The vigils occurred as communities nationwide braced for planned immigration raids — which did not come to fruition to the extent Trump previously announced.