Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials described a 2018 visit to a migrant detention facility by Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleyOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by the League of Conservation Voters — Senate Finance chair backs budget action on fossil fuel subsidies Top Democrat says he'll push to address fossil fuel tax breaks in spending bill Democrats revive filibuster fight over voting rights bill 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 NielsenEx-Trump official: 'No. 1 national security threat I've ever seen' is GOP Left-leaning group to track which companies hire former top Trump aides Rosenstein: Zero tolerance immigration policy 'never should have been proposed or implemented' 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."
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 TrumpJan. 6 committee chair says panel will issue a 'good number' of additional subpoenas Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by AM General — Pentagon officials prepare for grilling Biden nominates head of Africa CDC to lead global AIDS response 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.
—Updated at 4:40 p.m.