The U.S.-Mexican border is nowhere near the Commonwealth of Virginia, but the highest of elected officials in the state have been in sync, loud and visible in their vehement and sustained opposition to the Trump administration’s immigration policy of family separations. Despite an executive order signed last week, the policy has remained in effect, with the report yesterday that less than a dozen of the more than 2,000 families separated have been reunited, prompting a California judge to order the immediate reunion of detained families.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam took the lead among U.S. governors a week ago to call back the state’s contribution to the National Guard force at the border, and the state’s two U.S. Senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, have been tireless in mobilizing opposition to the policy, as has U.S. Rep. Don Beyer, who represents the 8th District of Virginia that includes the City of Falls Church.
Beyer has led the effort, now joined by 77 Congressmen, to shed a spotlight on reports of mistreatment toward migrant children currently in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) by releasing to the press a letter signed by the 77 lawmakers to Scott Lloyd, director of the ORR, and Alex Azar, secretary of the U.S. Health and Human Services department. The letter also cites the ORR’s process of releasing children, which it says “is exacerbating family separation.”
Late last week, Warner and Kaine announced a letter sent to Trump officials demanding more information about an Associated Press report indicating widespread physical and psychological abuse of immigrant children at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center near Staunton, Virginia.
That letter to Acting Assistant Secretary Steven Wagner for the Administration for Children and Families under the Department of Health and Human Services, outlined the lawmakers’ concern for “appalling accusations against the facility’s personnel” and asked for clarification and additional information from the agency.
“As Americans continue to process the realities of your Administration’s immigration policies, we write with additional concerns about the treatment of immigrant children currently or previously detained in government facilities. Specifically, we seek information about allegations of widespread physical and psychological abuse at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center (SVJC) near Staunton, Virginia,” Warner and Kaine wrote.
Their concerns are underscored by the recent influx of children now being placed in detention facilities across the country and the agency’s inability to properly care for children already in its custody.
“As you can imagine, our concerns stem from the fact that your agency is tasked with caring for unaccompanied immigrant youths after DHS apprehends them for unlawful entry,” the Senators continued. “Though we understand that these alleged abuses took place at a locally-operated facility, your agency ultimately has oversight and must ensure that these facilities comply with standards for when and how to physically engage these youths.”
The letter followed a face-to-face meeting the two lawmakers held in Arlington last week with eight leaders of regional faith-based and immigration-linked non-profits to compare notes on the current family separation crisis.
Kaine and Warner discussed two detention centers in Virginia, one in Bristow and another leased from a prison facility in Staunton. They said they intended to get into those centers and not just look, but interview the children to find out how they’re being treated and coping with the trauma of being separated from their families.
“If they won’t let people in, they’re trying to hide something,” Kaine said. After a full week, legislation continues to languish in Congress “because too many Republicans are hoping they can go it alone, forcing Democrats to go along on the GOP’s terms.”
Kaine said he’s been very heartened by the response of the U.S. population to this crisis. “The Trump administration did this because they thought the American population wouldn’t care. But the public has stood up forcefully, insisting that it still has a moral compass.”
Warner opened the event, held at the Universalist Unitarian Church on S. George Mason Dr. in Arlington, saying, “Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse with the Trump administration, then comes this.” He called Trump “morally bankrupt” and “lacking in any regard for the rule of law.” The Trump administration “has a basic lack of humanity” in this case, he added. “It has so little regard for children.”
There are reports, one participant said, that over 12,000 children overall are being held apart from their parents in custody in the U.S. now. Kaine said he hopes that “good hearted people will step up to help put the families back together.”
Overall, participants in the meeting testified about how fear is driving minorities underground, including those legally here. “There’s been a dramatic decline in the willingness of people to come out,” one said.
Warner suggested three steps, to get information out (especially in the face of all the disinformation Trump is spewing), to “raise our voices” that includes voting, and to launch investigations where necessary to get the root and extent of problems. Kaine added the need for ongoing dialogue with the community to learn what compromises, if any, will achieve the results the community needs.
Participants in the discussion included Monica Sarmiento, Executive Director of the Virginia Coalition for Immigrant Rights, David Donahue, senior pastor of the Manassas Baptist Church, Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, legal director of the Immigrant Advocacy Program at Legal Aid Justice Center, Priscilla Martinez, member of the Board of Directors of Interfaith Power and Light, Rabbi Michael Holzman of the Hebrew Congregation in Reston, also on the Strategy Team of Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement (VOICE), Edgar Aranda-Yanoc, chairman of the Board of Directors of the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations, Lenka Mendoza, founder of DREAMers’ MOMs, Elisabeth Geschiere, coordinator for youth and young adults as well as social justice for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington.