Pallone recounts contentious visit to detention center

BY David Cruz, Senior Correspondent |

Calling the Trump administration’s immigration policy “inhumane and cruel,” Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order “to prevent any state resources from being used to help federal authorities separate families.”  State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal has joined 20 other attorneys general in a letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Homeland Security secretary opposing the zero tolerance policy of jailing immigrant parents who’ve been detained at border crossings, even parents seeking asylum, and forcibly separating their children. They call the policy “contrary to American values” and demanding it be halted. Congress has scheduled votes on two immigration bills this week. Rep. Frank Pallone gave his views on the measures to Senior Correspondent David Cruz.

Cruz: You made this unannounced visit to the detention center in Elizabeth and then things went kind of downhill from there, no?

Pallone: Well, the problem is, there are two points I wanted to make after we visited with some of the guys that were detained, or fathers that were detained. First of all, in most cases they’re coming here because they or their children are being persecuted.

Cruz: In their native country?

Pallone: In their native country, which most of them were from Central America. One guy was a fisherman whose business partner was murdered. Another guy was military, a soldier, who was targeted by the drug cartel.

Cruz: Did you get a chance to talk to these guys?

Pallone: That’s what we did. We weren’t there to inspect the facility. We were there because we had permission from five men, this is an adult men’s facility, to talk to them about their stories of how they had been separated from their children, or in one case from a 7-year-old younger brother who he brought over the border. Because of the policy of the Trump administration, which now says that when someone comes over the border with children or a young sibling, they’re going to take them from them. And that’s what they talked about, how they came here to escape murder, rape, whatever violence. And when they got to the border their kids, in two cases daughters, in one case a 7-year-old younger brother, were taken and they have no idea where they are, or they have some guess about where they are, but they have no communications with them. See, the problem is that President Trump is doing two things. One, he’s changing the definition of political asylum, so you cannot become a political asylee unless you’re personally attacked, you know, violence is committed against you. It can’t be the fear of it, or the fact that it happened to your brother, or your business partner. And then the second thing, if you will, is that he’s adopted the separation of families policy so the kids are separated from their parents, but there’s no procedure for them to have any interactions. They don’t know where they are and they can’t communicate with them.

Cruz: We saw this video of you all trying to get in. Were you barred from getting in? How did you eventually get in?

Pallone: We got there at 9 o’clock. We had written consent from the detainees and their attorneys in each case. We showed up just like we would any relative or friend, and they were letting people in, but they wouldn’t let us in, obviously because we’re members of Congress and they thought, in my opinion, that we were going to find out something they didn’t want to show us. I don’t know that they had anything to hide, but obviously they thought they did. So they said you can’t come in until the ICE people get here, because this is a privately-run facility, a private contract. So we waited, and two hours later the ICE people came and then they let us in. But there was no reason that we couldn’t get in at 9 o’clock because all we were doing was interviewing and talking to the people. We weren’t inspecting the facility. We didn’t get any tour or anything.

Cruz: Some of your Republican colleagues are going to meeting with the president today and they’re talking about pushing some legislation through. Have you seen it, and is there anything in there, including paying for the construction for a border wall, that you would support?

Pallone: Well, understand that this policy of separation of children has been put in place by the president himself. There’s nothing under the law that says you need to do that. So what he’s now doing, in my opinion, is he’s trying to use that as a bargaining chip, and saying, I’ll rescind that if you vote for this bad bill that restricts immigration. In other words he’s saying, well we’re going to correct the status of the Dreamers, the kids that are mostly adults now and have been here for years, and you know, we don’t want them deported. But he’s only going to do that if we restrict the definition of political asylum, if we restrict the ability to bring your brother or sister or grandparents, if we cut back on work visas. It’s just, basically holding the kids hostage, and I can’t accept that and I don’t think anybody, Democrat or Republican, should.

Cruz: You talked about DACA, this border wall, all of these issues, it seems like the Gang of Eight was 20 years ago. Is there going to be a solution to this in this administration?

Pallone: I think the opposition to the separation of children policy is building to a crescendo and there are a lot of Republicans who are opposed to it too, so hopefully the president just rescinds it. Now, as far as the Dreamers are concerned, yes, we want to correct their status, and we want them to be able to have a pathway to citizenship. But again, the only reason that they’re now threatened with deportation is because President Trump issued an executive order saying that, otherwise they would have been here and it would have been fine. So what you have to understand is you can’t just keep saying, as the president does, I’m going to do all these bad things, and then I want you to do something in return in order for me to help these people. This is a humanitarian crisis that he has created. Why is he holding Dreamers or children hostage? Just do the right thing. Get rid of your executive order that says that Dreamers can’t stay here. You want some kind of legislation that provides a pathway to citizenship, we’ll do it, but that has nothing to do with the status of the Dreamers or particularly these kids. He’s the one that’s stopping it.