As the Trump White House faces another deadline Thursday to reunite families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border under the the Justice Department's "zero tolerance policy, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, says that the Trump administration has been "incompetent" and "callous" in its inability to track the family connections of those separated at the border.
The administration previously missed a deadline to reunite children under five years old with their parents, citing difficulties in tracking down parents who have already been deported or released into the U.S.
In an interview with CBSN on Thursday, Merkley criticized the administration's response to reuniting families saying they didn't track connections when processing children, making it harder for border officials to reunite children with their parents. "I'm glad they're making progress, but we should have never been in this place to begin with," Merkley said.
The administration instead sent a "political message" by "inflicting trauma on children" by forcing children into packed warehouses and processing centers to await their reunification with family members seeking asylum at the U.S. border, Merkley told CBSN.
Merkley was one of the first U.S. lawmakers to publicize the issue of family separation at the border, after live-streaming his unsuccessful attempt to enter a detention facility in Texas last month. The senator was eventually allowed entry into a separate facility, and still, he told CBS News, the images he says are "seared" into his mind.
Merkley told CBSN that in his conversations with detention facility staff, they cited a lack of mental health counselors to provide assistance to young children being an issue at the border.
"There obviously was no planning, and to not have mental health counselors when you have children who've gone through trauma broadly, they've been traumatized en route, they've been traumatized when they were taken away from their parents," Merkley said. "And there was no planning for counseling services, and kids just stuffed in there overloading the facility. It really was extraordinarily disturbing to see the U.S. involved in this type of child snatching strategy."
While the issue of immigration has not yet been tackled by this year's Congress, the Democrat, meanwhile, is looking ahead to 2020. Merkley said that while he's "completely focused" on the 2018 midterm elections in November, he noted that he would be "checking into the possibility" of exploring a presidential run in 2020.
"I'm kind of exploring the psosiblty but my main focus is on us senate in November said Merkley, who's made several trips to New Hampshire recently, a key state on the presidential campaign trail.
He added, "We need to have democratic majority come out of those elections, that can stop the horrific nominees to he court and the horrific nominees to the executive branch."
If not him, Merkley suggested a "marvelous set of leaders in the Democratic party who would all be phenomenal presidents."