Recent national attention to the class action lawsuit filed by unaccompanied immigrant minors detained at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center, or SVJC, near Staunton has raised the concern of many, including U.S. Senator from Virginia Mark Warner. He spoke with WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz.
CHRISTOPHER CLYMER KURTZ: I know you have asked a lot of questions and spoken out, wanting to get to the bottom of whatever was happening or is happening at SVJC. I wonder if you could just tell me what a couple of your questions are that you wanted answered, and describe if you’ve gotten answers, or if you’re still waiting for answers.
SENATOR MARK WARNER: I read with great concern the reports coming out of this Center where immigrant young folks have been held for some time, and some of the reports that indicated that some of these young people had been forcibly detained, stripped and locked into a chair, some people having hoods put over their head. Totally inappropriate behavior.
The governor launched an investigation, from the state’s standpoint. From the federal standpoint, this program is run by the Department of Health and Human Services. Senator Kaine and I have asked for investigation, as well.
At this point I believe there are 14 of these young immigrant children at the facility. None of these individuals are part of the the Trump Administration’s zero tolerance policy where people were separated at the border, families torn apart. We saw some of those kids actually held in a facility up in Northern Virginia and the courts have ordered the reuniting of all of those families.
These are young people that have been detained and sometimes have been detained because they’ve had some prior challenges or not performed in other facilities. We just want to make sure that these young folks are being treated appropriately and that there’s not some of the at least reports of what would appear to me to be inappropriate behavior.
But we’ve got to get answers, and so far we I don’t think the state investigation has gotten answers and I can tell you, we have not been able to get a clear answer from the Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Azar.
I had the opportunity during a recent hearing to ask secretary Azar for a response. He’s not gotten back to me, and unfortunately it shows this administration’s, I believe, kind of lackadaisical response towards anything that deals with immigrant children.
CLYMER KURTZ: So they’re not answering your questions. Are you getting a response from the center itself?
WARNER: We were able to take, have staff up there, Senator Kaine and Congressman Goodlatte. They had a chance to look at the facility. All but one of the children listed in the lawsuit had been voluntarily deported and are no longer cooperating with the officials. ORR, which is this organization that is supposed to be taking care of refugee resettlement has been a bit overwhelmed with the Trump Administration’s move to this zero tolerance policy and this influx of separated children.
Again, let me make clear, the Staunton facility does not have kids who are there from the so-called zero-tolerance policy. But the overall burdens on ORR to meet the court orders, I think, are probably slowing down some of us getting our responses.
CLYMER KURTZ: What safeguards would you like to see in place at the facility to protect the kids?
WARNER: I think it’s important that the guards have appropriate training. There needs to be discipline, I understand, but some of the reports of discipline in terms of stripping someone, having them bound to a chair, left in that chair for hours at end, putting a hood over their head, seem well beyond anything that would even take place at some of our toughest prisons in terms of appropriate correctional behavior.
Again, remember, these are accusations made, the facility has a chance to defend itself. We feel that has to play out as well, and what we want to really hear from is the Health and Human Services Secretary Azar. He needs to give us a response.
CLYMER KURTZ: Do you think housing non-criminal, immigrant children in a local juvenile center, detention center, is an acceptable practice?
WARNER: I think that’s a fair question. I think when we built these facilities on a regional basis they were to house kids from Virginia. Candidly, it’s something I think, once we get the full answers of what has happened or what has not happened in Staunton, I think we do need to step back and say, “Is it appropriate for these kind of children to be housed in what is otherwise viewed as a regional facility dealing with kids in the Valley?”
But it raises the overall question of why we need immigration reform. I remind folks that the senate passed broad-based bipartisan immigration reform a few years back that would have strengthened the borders, that would have absolutely allowed those young DACA kids, kids who came here as so-called Dreamers, to get a path to citizenship. These were things that the president himself has indicated he would be supportive of, yet when we had a chance to deal with this issue, he kept changing the goal posts, and I think we’re seeing the failure of an immigration policy play out right now in the Shenandoah Valley.
CLYMER KURTZ: Thank you so much for your time, Senator.
WARNER: Thank you so much, Christopher. Take care.