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 MerkleyOvernight Defense — Presented by Boeing — House passes resolution rebuking Trump over Syria | Sparks fly at White House meeting on Syria | Dems say Trump called Pelosi a 'third-rate politician' | Trump, Graham trade jabs Senate confirms Trump's Air Force secretary pick Democratic senators condemn Trump for calling on China to investigate Bidens 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 NielsenTrump confirms Rick Perry to step down as Energy secretary Trump says acting Homeland Security chief McAleenan will step down Activists to demonstrate at ICE headquarters after Cameroonian immigrant dies in custody 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."

ADVERTISEMENT

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 TrumpZuckerberg launches public defense of Facebook as attacks mount Trump leaning toward keeping a couple hundred troops in eastern Syria: report Warren says making Israel aid conditional on settlement building is 'on the table' 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.