Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proposed a “9/11-style commission” that would investigate family separations at the US-Mexico border during an immigration town hall in her home district Saturday.
The 9/11 Commission was an independent, bipartisan commission charged with investigating the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. The group worked to understand what happened during the attack, who was responsible, whether the US was prepared, and if the country properly responded to the attacks.
The representative suggested a similar body be created to not just to understand the origin and effects of the Trump administration’s family separation policy, but to ensure families are reunited. “I think that that kind of study is what’s going to be required in order to reunite as many children with their parents as possible. That’s the work that we have to do,” she said.
The Trump administration was ordered by a judge to stop separating families at the border in 2018; however, separations continued well after that order was handed down. And although the administration has worked to comply with a court order to reunite separated families, thousands of separated children who were released from custody and placed with sponsors before that ruling weren’t covered by that order. Further complicating matters, the Department of Health and Human Services said in January it wasn’t sure how many separated children had been released before the reunification ruling; full reunification would involve tracking these children down, but it isn’t always clear where these children are.
Beyond working towards full reunification, Ocasio-Cortez suggested the federal government now has a responsibility to provide long-term mental health care to the thousands of children that were separated from their parents under President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy.
“Even if you separate a kid from their parent for two days you have already created life long lasting trauma,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “There were children who have been separated that we have reunified, and it took about a year to reunify some of these kids with their parents. Lifelong trauma for which we, the United States, are responsible.”
The freshman lawmaker did not outline how exactly the government would take this responsibility, but here too, 9/11 could prove to be a model. Following that terrorist attack, the government created the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund to support those who were harmed that day; after it lapsed, it was reactivated in 2011 to provide funding for the care of first responders.
Ocasio-Cortez isn’t alone in her call for a commission — both New York’s Rep. Yvette Clarke and Texas’ Rep. Veronica Escobar have introduced legislation that would create a national commission responsible for investigating the Trump administration’s treatment of migrant families. Both have said the commission they’re proposing would be independent and modeled after the 9/11 Commission.
The legislation is unlikely to pass in the current Congress; in fact, even if the lawmakers were able to successfully shepherd legislation on an immigration commission through the House, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would not take it up in the Senate. Ocasio-Cortez acknowledged this reality in her remarks, and said Democrats should make the commission a priority should they retake both the Senate and White House.
The proposal comes as Trump immigration policies face new scrutiny
Ocasio-Cortez’s comments come at a moment when the Trump administration’s immigration policies are under increased scrutiny due to reports of poor conditions at detention facilities.
Last month, investigators visiting a detention facility in Clint, Texas where 250 infants, children and teens were being housed told the Associated Press they found overcrowded, unhygienic conditions and a lack of adequate water and food.
“In my 22 years of doing visits with children in detention, I have never heard of this level of inhumanity,” investigator Holly Cooper of University of California, Davis’ Immigration Law Clinic told the Associated Press.
A group of Democratic lawmakers, including Ocasio-Cortez and others, visited border detention facilities in Clint and El Paso, Texas earlier this month. They decried the conditions in the facilities, which Rep. Veronica Escobar called “abhorrent.”
The problem has never been that Congress has failed to appropriate funds. The problem is the disconnection from our values.
The current situation is abhorrent for migrants, especially children, and it’s overwhelming and straining communities as well as agents and officers.
— Rep. Veronica Escobar (@RepEscobar) July 1, 2019
Vice President Mike Pence led a congressional tour of two other facilities in July. While one of the facilities was new and well kept, conditions at a second detention center were reportedly appalling. Josh Dawsey of the Washington Post toured that facility with Pence. He reported extreme heat, overcrowding, and that some of the detainees had gone up to 20 days without showering — on Twitter he wrote, the “stench was overwhelming.”
Pence called the conditions “tough stuff,” but pointed the finger at congressional leaders. Congress recently approved $4.59 billion in supplemental border funding, but Pence said not only is more money needed, but that the administration wants laws changed in order to reduce the number of immigrants and asylum seekers coming to the US.
Criticism of Trump administration immigration policy has also come from outside of the US; recently, Michele Bachelet, UN high commissioner for human rights, condemned the conditions of US detention facilities.
“In most of these cases, the migrants and refugees have embarked on perilous journeys with their children in search of protection and dignity and away from violence and hunger,” Bachelet said. “When they finally believe they have arrived in safety, they may find themselves separated from their loved ones and locked in undignified conditions. This should never happen anywhere.”
Change will likely be difficult; while the $4.59 billion in supplemental funding was passed on a bipartisan basis, the final legislation upset progressive lawmakers who had hoped to attach detention center health and sanitation standards to the bill.
The sort of changes to asylum and immigration law the administration has proposed might be welcomed by Republicans in the Senate, but would be opposed by these same progressive lawmakers as well as more moderate Democrats in both the House and Senate. The commission faces an uphill battle in the opposite direction. For the time being, compromise seems most probable with bills similar to the funding measure, ones that ensure the detained — especially detained children — at the very least have access to essentials like toothbrushes, soap, and blankets.