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Toomey: Let’s Look Into Opening More Family Detention Centers

The Pennsylvania senator weighed in on the increasingly contentious separations of nearly 2,000 children from their parents at the U.S. border.


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(Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo)

Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers (as well as all five living First Ladies) have spoken out against the federal government allowing nearly 2,000 children to be removed from their parents at the U.S. border in a six-week period this spring.

Sen. Pat Toomey weighed in the controversial separations during an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt on Monday, first saying the issue has been “exaggerated significantly.” After Hewitt pointed out how many children have been separated as well as alleged grim conditions at the border, Toomey reversed course, admitting that the issue isn’t his “area of expertise” and that the separations could be “happening with a higher frequency than I’ve been aware of.”

In another interview with WJET-AM in Erie on Monday, the Pennsylvania senator proposed passing legislation to permit federally operated family-detention centers.

“We could have a detention center where we hold a person who came here and broke the law — came here illegally and brought their children — and they are held in a humane environment with their children until they have been processed,” Toomey said. “And that processing might very well lead to being deported back to the country of origin, but it would be the entire family.”

Toomey also said that separating children from their parents at the border is “obviously very difficult to impose … on the children.”

The senator joins dozens of other lawmakers (including Sen. Bob Casey) who have called for a change in immigration policy as the separations become increasingly contentious. President Donald Trump has attempted to blame the issue on a nonexistent law created by Democrats and the Obama administration; however, the “zero tolerance” immigration policy announced this spring by his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has the effect of separating parents from their children when they enter the country, per the Poynter Institute’s Politifact. That’s because parents involved in illegal border crossings are now prosecuted by the Justice Department at a higher priority, while their children are placed in the custody of a relative, sponsor, or foster home, or held in a shelter.

Sarah Pierce, an associate policy analyst of the U.S. Immigration Program at the Migration Policy Institute, told Politifact that before the Trump administration, immigrants entering illegally as families were rarely prosecuted — instead, they were held in family detention centers until they were sent to appear before an immigration court or deported.

During his interview with Hewitt, Toomey said he doesn’t think Sessions should reverse the “zero tolerance” policy but suggested that “there are some things we ought to look at doing differently.” Speaking to WJET-AM, Toomey said he’s “in favor of looking into what legislation we would actually have to require” to permit family-detention centers, as well as “what we would have to appropriate by way of funds to build these facilities.

“And I think there is some capacity we’d have to create,” Toomey said. “But I don’t think anybody wants to see the consequences that we’ve seen recently.”

In fact, Pennsylvania is home to one of only three facilities in the country (the other two are in Texas) where the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency holds undocumented immigrant families: the Berks County Residential Center, located about 75 miles northwest of Philadelphia.

The center is widely protested by immigrants’ rights groups that claim detainees (especially children) have been subjected to neglect and physical, mental and sexual abuse by guards. (One former guard served five months in Berks County Prison after he pleaded guilty in 2016 to institutional sexual assault of a 19-year-old Honduran woman.) The Berks County Residential Center’s license has been under scrutiny since 2016.