California Senator Kamala Harris charged that the Trump administration had committed "crimes against humanity" after meeting at a U.S. detention center on Friday with immigrant mothers who had been separated from their children.
Harris became the latest prominent Democrat to travel to the southern border as controversy rages over President Donald Trump's immigration enforcement policy. On Wednesday, Trump made a rare retreat, signing an order that he said instructed federal immigration authorities to stop separating children from parents charged with unlawfully crossing the border, a misdemeanor.
The president's new directive hasn't resolved the crisis, Harris said after talking to three immigrant mothers who told her their children were taken at the border. More than 2,300 children were in federal custody as of Monday after being taken from caregivers under what the Trump administration calls a "zero tolerance" policy for border crossings.
"This is outrageous," Harris told a crowd of several hundred protesters outside the Otay Mesa Detention Facility near San Diego. "This is clearly a crime against humanity that is being committed by the United States government and we have to stop it."
A White House official said Friday that 500 youngsters had been reunited with their families, but gave no further information and it isn't clear how many remain in detention centers or foster homes. White House representatives didn't immediately offer a response to Harris's criticism.
"They've given us no indication of how it's going to work. That's part of the problem," Harris said in an interview after touring Otay Mesa, which is operated by private prison company CoreCivic Inc.
"We can't let everyone kind of turn the page, like 'Oh, OK, we're now bored with this subject, let's move on to the next," she said. "It's still very real for these families. A day in the life of a child who's not with their parent is a very long day."
Harris said that inside the detention center she spoke with the three women, from El Salvador and Honduras, who entered the U.S. seeking asylum and had been separated from their children at the border. One of the women told Harris that she had not spoken with her son and thought he was in New York but didn't know for sure.
"They're in complete and utter despair," Harris said.
While she visited in her capacity as a U.S. senator representing California, Harris is also considered a potential presidential candidate in 2020. Outside the detention center among a crowd of protesters, one woman held a sign that read "Kamala can! 2020!" A man shouted "President Harris 2020!" as the senator worked her way through the crowd, shaking hands and participating in selfies.
Asked about her political future, Harris turned toward the the detention center and the protesters behind her. "I mean, listen, right now we need to get these families out of these detention facilities. So that's what I'm thinking about today," she said.
She told the crowd gathered on a desert road outside Otay Mesa: "These mothers that I spoke with, they think that they're alone. We need to remind them and everyone else that they are not alone and that we all stand with them."
'That Is a Prison'
Harris described the conditions inside the detention center as unforgiving. "I am a career prosecutor; I have visited many prisons and jails. That is a prison," she said.
Detainees who work at the facility, she was told, are paid $1 a day. Phone calls cost 85 cents a minute, she said.
The mothers she spoke with told Harris "they believe that they are being given sleeping pills and medication they have not asked for that sedates them," she told reporters.
"We are so much better than this," she said.
Representatives for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which contracts CoreCivic to run the facility, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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