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Sen. Jeff Merkley at the border

With the recent headlines about the continued horrors children at the border are experiencing, I want to give a shout-out to Sen. Jeff Merkley for the dedicated work he’s doing to assist these legal asylum-seekers, especially the youngest ones. He was the first U.S. senator to publicly document children in cages, and he’s made it his mission to educate himself and his constituents about the conditions people seeking asylum are forced to live in. And behind the scenes, he’s also quietly assisted individual cases.

Here’s one instance I know about. In May, I volunteered with Al Otro Lado, a bi-national legal services organization that provides legal orientation to asylum-seekers in Tijuana, Mexico. On May 22, three Al Otro Lado volunteers accompanied three French-speaking unaccompanied minors from Guinea to the U.S. port of entry to present themselves to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers to seek asylum. (The boys were fleeing political persecution, which left family members unlawfully arrested, detained and others murdered.)

This is what one of the volunteers told me: “When we arrived at the border we asked to speak to a supervisor. The supervisor appeared, but said the CBP would only accept the boys for processing if we left them alone at the gate and did not insist on watching them be accepted into custody.”

She said the volunteers were hesitant to leave the children alone because of past experiences of CBP turning children away from the gate. After a couple of exchanges, the volunteers called Nicole Ramos, director of the Border Rights Project at Al Otro Lado, and within a couple of minutes they had Senator Merkley on the phone. He patiently requested to speak with the CBP supervisor, who was refusing to allow the volunteers to witness that the boys were accepted for processing of their asylum request. The CBP agent refused to speak with Merkley, saying that the senator wasn’t the agent’s boss, the president was, and he would take the call only from the president. After several minutes, the agent finally acquiesced and accepted the boys for processing. Senator Merkley was very patient during this whole exchange and clearly focused on making sure the boys’ cases were properly handled.

This instance says many things about Senator Merkley: that he cares enough about migrant children to establish a relationship with Al Otro Lado. That he gave out his cellphone number for its volunteers to call him. That he took a call after business hours in order to ensure that unaccompanied minors were not being denied access to the asylum process, and that he engaged the border officials with patience, professionalism and persistence.

We need all of our nation’s leaders to show this kind of commitment and leadership in the face of cruel and inhumane treatment of immigrants at the border. As families flee economic distress, violence, discrimination and other horrific conditions around the world, we need to use America’s soft power to help alleviate those issues, not persecute those who seek safe haven. As the Trump administration cuts aid to the Central American countries that families have left, they are only aggravating the conditions that families are fleeing. We need our nation’s leaders to follow Senator Merkley’s example and work toward long-term solutions for these countries, and immediately address the dire conditions asylum-seekers are facing.

Senator Merkley is showing true leadership in this difficult situation and I share this because I am so impressed with him. I hope you are, too.

Catherine Foster lives in Ashland.

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