A weekend visit by members of Congress to an immigration detention center in New Jersey has caused an uproar. Seven Democrats from New York and New Jersey made a surprise visit to the Elizabeth Contract Detention Facility in Elizabeth, NJ, where they were initially denied entry. After more than an hour and numerous tweets about the situation, the politicians were finally allowed in to meet with arrested immigrants who have been separated from their children.
Under current law, children found to be entering the U.S. illegally are generally separated from adults at the border if the child is in danger, has no clear relationship to the adult, or the adult enters criminal proceedings. Over the past few months, the Trump administration has declared a “zero tolerance” policy for anyone caught crossing the border illegally, saying they will be criminally prosecuted. As a result, those arrested who have children with them have the children taken from them to be housed in a different facility.
At the Elizabeth facility, run privately by a company called CoreCivic, the Congress members were initially refused permission to enter. ICE’s website for the facility says visiting hours are only for “friends and family” of detainees. ICE released a statement saying, “The Congressman came unannounced but ICE accommodated their request and they were allowed to visit and meet with several detainees.”
According to the Congress members, that’s not quite what happened. Rep. Jerry Nadler wrote on Twitter during the event that he was forcibly holding a door open at the site and was “refusing to let it close until we are given access to the detainees.” Rep. Carolyn Maloney at one point claimed that officials were “covering the windows with paper” so the representatives could not see in.
After an hour and a half of arguing with facility staff, local police and ICE officials, the members of Congress were allowed into the facility. Another heated exchange then broke out over security protocols at the detention center. Rep. Bill Pascrell voiced his indignation on Twitter that the authorities wouldn’t allow them to bring cell phones, cameras or pens into the facility. ICE’s website for the facility says that all visitors are subject to pat-down searches.
Also participating in the tour were Reps. Adriano Espaillat and Albio Sires. While the members of Congress visited the facility, protesters rallied outside. There are reports that the politicians are now planning to introduce a bill in the House prohibiting the Department of Homeland Security from taking children from their parents at the border.