DHS officials called lawmaker visit to migrant detention facility a 'Hill stunt'

DHS officials called lawmaker visit to migrant detention facility a 'Hill stunt'
© Anna Moneymaker

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials described a 2018 visit to a migrant detention facility by Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeffrey (Jeff) Alan MerkleyHillicon Valley: QAnon scores wins, creating GOP problem | Supreme Court upholds regulation banning robocalls to cellphones | Foreign hackers take aim at homebound Americans | Uber acquires Postmates QAnon scores wins, creating GOP problem Democratic senator will introduce bill mandating social distancing on flights after flying on packed plane MORE (D-Ore.) as a "Hill Stunt" in emails provided to The Hill.

The emails, obtained by watchdog group American Oversight, show discussions between multiple senior DHS officials, including then-Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenThe Seila Law case: Liberty and political firing Hillicon Valley: Twitter falling short on pledge to verify primary candidates | Barr vows to make surveillance reforms after watchdog report | DHS cyber chief focused on 2020 Sen. Kennedy slams acting DHS secretary for lack of coronavirus answers MORE, about the visit from the Oregon lawmaker under the subject line "Hill stunts."

In one email, then-Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at DHS Jonathan Hoffman wrote that Merkley is "trying to do 'visits' to family detention facilities."

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In a subsequent email Hoffman said the visit "is being tweeted out by moveon.org as some sort of stunt" along with a tweet from the progressive advocacy group MoveOn with a link to a livestream of Merkley's trip to the facility.

“Congressional oversight of DHS’s child detention program is not a ‘Hill stunt.’ This is yet another disturbing example of how the Trump administration has decided that it is above the law and beyond scrutiny," Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight, told The Hill in a statement.

Merkely told The Hill in a statement that the emails are an example of the administration dismissing the role of congressional oversight.

“It’s deeply disturbing, but sadly not surprising, that this administration wouldn’t see congressional oversight on the treatment of children as an important and essential part of our job,” Merkely said.

“After I went down to the border in June 2018, Americans were outraged by what I discovered: a government policy of separating children from their families, holding them in cages, and moving them to a secretive detention facility that held nearly 1500 boys. President TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN's Anderson Cooper: Trump's Bubba Wallace tweet was 'racist, just plain and simple' Beats by Dre announces deal with Bubba Wallace, defends him after Trump remarks Overnight Defense: DOD reportedly eyeing Confederate flag ban | House military spending bill blocks wall funding MORE and his administration may view children as pawns in their political games, but the American people share my view: that these children are vulnerable human beings who should be treated with decency and respect by our nation.”

The Hill has reached out for comment to DHS and to Hoffman, who now serves as the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs at the Department of Defense.

Merkley's visit to detention facilities came at the height of the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy which resulted in families being separated at the border.

The Oregon lawmaker was initially barred from entering a facility in Brownsville, Texas, before ultimately being allowed a tour.

DHS and Department of Health and Human Services at the time said that Merkley was denied entry for safety and security reasons.

Pressure from Merkley, a bipartisan group of lawmakers and activists ultimately resulted in President Trump ending the zero tolerance policy, although some family separations at the border continue.

 

DHS Hill Stunt emails by Regina Zilbermints on Scribd

 

—Updated at 4:40 p.m.