Merkley, Chu introduce bicameral legislation to shut down unregulated child prisons for migrant children

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and U.S. Representative Judy Chu (D-CA-27) today announced the introduction of bicameral legislation, the Shut Down Child Prison Camps Act, to shut down unregulated child prison camps for migrant children.

In January, the Trump Administration shut down the unregulated Tornillo tent prison after public pressure—including an oversight trip Merkley and Chu made in December—forced them to back down from imprisoning migrant children in a desert tent encampment. But behind the scenes, the Trump Administration has been quietly expanding a similar facility in Homestead, Florida.  

“It was absolutely chilling to see children locked up in a child prison in the desert,” said Merkley. “Children belong in homes, schools, and playgrounds, not behind barbed wire. Our taxpayer dollars are being used to traumatize children by keeping them in child prison camps instead of in homes and communities. This is evil. We would be outraged if any other nation was locking up innocent children in desolate, unregulated child prisons—but that’s exactly what we’re doing here in the United States of America. We need to shut down these child prisons and end Trump’s war on migrant children.”

“When I visited the child prison camp in Tornillo, I was horrified by what I saw. I will never forget the lines of children being forced by guards to march in a single-file line just to go to the bathroom because they were not allowed to go anywhere on their own. Although we were prohibited from speaking to the children, the look in their eyes showed despair,” said Chu. “Fortunately, thanks to the remarkable community outrage, the camp at Tornillo was closed. But  children are still being detained elsewhere, like in Homestead, Florida, thanks to a legal loophole that Trump is exploiting in order to wage his war on immigrants. These children are paying too high a price for Trump’s xenophobia – including being retraumatized or suffering developmental harm. That is why we are introducing this bill to close that ridiculous ‘temporary emergency shelter’ designation that allows Trump to imprison children who have done nothing wrong.”

In December, Merkley released a secret memo that was written by top Department of Homeland Security and Justice Department staff in December 2017. The memo shows the Trump Administration plotting to deter children fleeing persecution from coming to America by making life as difficult as possible for migrant children and families who come seeking asylum—including by intentionally ramping up child detention.

The Trump Administration went on to create a massive system of child prisons across America, which held up to 15,000 migrant children at its peak in December 2018; 2,800 of those children were held in an unregulated facility at Tornillo. Currently, around 1,100 children are being held in the unregulated child prison at Homestead, and the Administration is trying to expand its capacity to 2,350 beds.