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Welch describes bleak conditions for asylum seekers at border

Accuses president of using detained children as bargaining chips toward building Mexican wall

PUTNEY—When U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., makes his periodic “Congress in Your Community” visits to the towns of Windham County, local concerns usually take precedence.

But on a steamy afternoon at the Putney General Store on July 5, the talk was dominated by President Trump.

Welch, who is seeking his seventh term as Vermont’s lone congressman, called the Trump administration “an existential threat” to the nation’s democratic form of government.

“It’s not about what Trump’s position is on health care, on trade, or on the environment,” Welch said. “All those things are important, and his positions are terrible. What’s different, and unique in my time in D.C., is that he is attacking some of the guard rails of democracy.

“We have stand up for the rule of law, we have to stand up for a free press, we have to stand up for truth, not lies. All these things are the building blocks of democracy that are now being challenged. I see that as a huge issue for us as a nation.”

No thought to consequences?

Part of that challenge to democracy was the Trump administration’s decision to, as Welch put it, “criminalize the act of seeking asylum and separate innocent migrant children from their parents.”

And Welch said that decision was apparently made without planning for the consequences of dealing with thousands of refugees and asylum seekers fleeing violence in Central America and Mexico, only to be placed into indefinite detention by U.S. authorities.

Welch was part of a group of members of Congress that visited a U.S. government-run migrant detention center on the Texas-Mexico border on June 17. He said he still feels shaken by what he and his colleagues witnessed.

“What we saw was pretty awful,” he said.

The congressional delegation visited a large, windowless warehouse that had been converted into a detention center for children, with dozens and dozens of children held in chain link cages.

Welch said he was in a facility that was so cold from air-conditioning, it was called “the ice box,” where children were wrapped in foil-like blankets and huddled on floor mats to stay warm.

“I saw three young boys who must have been brothers, clinging to each other, as if for dear life,” Welch said, adding that none of the smiles or laughter that one might expect from children were seen anywhere in the facility.

Another detention center visited by Welch, run by the U.S. Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, held adults, including parents who had their children taken from them when they arrived at the border.

“I met with a group of mothers just separated from their children,” Welch said. “When the first began to speak of the pain she was enduring not knowing where her daughter was, the others began to cry too.”

Welch said it was “heartbreaking” to see what the detainees were going through just for doing what any parent anywhere would do to prevent harm from coming to their children and to seek a better life.

“It was shocking to see this happening, knowing it was being done in your name and mine with the full support of the government of the United States,” he said.

Bowing to outrage

While President Trump, bowing to public outrage, reversed his administration’s policy of separating families at the border within a few days of the congressional delegation’s visit, Welch said the government was still caring for around 3,000 children, about 100 of them under the age of 5, with little progress being made toward family reunification.

He called the Trump administration’s treatment of children at the border “repugnant,” and said that the issue of border security and immigration deserves a serious debate, not what Welch called “hostage taking.”

“What the president has been saying to people like me is that we’ll give you the kids if you give me $25 billion for the border wall,” Welch said. “It’s part of why politics is bad right now. It’s not a legitimate debate.”

But the state of play on the immigration issue, Welch said, was but another example of how divided the U.S. is right now.

“There are a lot of people that support the president’s ‘get tough’ approach,” he said, “not because they want to hurt people, but because they’re scared about their jobs and the way of life they have, and they're scared about all the talk about gangs like MS-13. They think we’ve got to do something. They’re not bad people. I just disagree with them.”

Welch said it is easy to feel hopeless in the face of a Trump White House and a Republican majority in Congress determined to roll back progress on immigration, civil rights, environmental protection, and other priorities.

“We have a president who doesn’t respect the rule of law and thinks nothing about telling lies,” Welch said. “That’s not good. Each of us has to find the strength to carry on and get through this.”

The good news, he said, is that people in local communities are engaged as never before, and people are running for office at all levels of government, determined to make change happen.

“Elections matter,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #467 (Wednesday, July 11, 2018). This story appeared on page A4.

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