Conversations with a Senator

I call my senators a lot. I have their number in my phone as “Senate” like they’re any old friend. You know why? Because calling your representatives and voicing your concern is the second greatest power you have as a citizen. Voting is the first and most important, and you should be voting in every damn election if you’re over 18.

A couple of weeks ago, I called both Iowa senators, Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley, regarding the crisis of detaining children at the border. I recently received a response from Senator Ernst. Don’t worry, I typically get a response from Senator Grassley by carrier pigeon, so I’ll probably have a response in another month or so. He usually tells me I’m wrong and that he disagrees with my stance, but Senator Ernst is generally much more open and informative with her responses. The following are her responses to me and my subsequent response to her.

Dear Ms. Vancamp,

Thank you for taking the time to contact me about our nation’s immigration policies, particularly those affecting children and families. It is important for me to hear from folks in Iowa on policy matters such as this.

Recently, President Trump issued a memorandum directing the Attorney General and the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to develop a proposal that increases the efficiency of our asylum system in order to better address the humanitarian crisis at our southern border. Specifically, the memorandum calls for fees for asylum applications, certain work permit restrictions, and a 180-day limit for adjudicating asylum claims. Officials have 90 days to draft regulations that implement these proposals. Some have raised concerns that these provisions are too restrictive and will lead to an increase in family separations due to the large proportion of families who seek relief through the asylum process.

Pursuant to current law, family separations typically occur in cases in which an adult claims asylum after illegally crossing the border. In these cases, adults are usually detained for longer periods than the government is legally allowed to hold children, resulting in the separation of children from adults that the government decides to hold as their pending asylum claim is adjudicated.  Within twenty days, separated children have generally been placed with a vetted sponsor (usually another family member) to await reunification with their parent after their immigration case has been adjudicated.

There is a humanitarian crisis at our southern border that demands action and attention. Iowans have been clear on their desire for a strong, secure border and efforts to curb human trafficking and the flow of drugs into our state. At the same time, I also believe that we can, and should, treat children and families in our immigration system with compassion, while still enforcing our immigration laws.

As such, last year, I was pleased to see President Trump sign an executive order that sought to keep families together by prioritizing the adjudication of cases involving detained families and encouraging additional facilities be made available to house families together. Additionally, I cosponsored two bills – S. 3093, the Keep Families Together and Enforce the Law Act, and S. 3091, the Protect Kids and Parents Act – which would prevent family separations. Both of these bills would require families be kept together during their immigration proceedings except in certain cases involving aggravated criminal conduct or in which there is a clear threat of harm to the child. Additionally, both bills prioritize the resolution of cases involving families and increase the number of immigration judges in order to expedite court proceedings.

Please know that I will continue to keep your views on this issue in mind moving forward. Feel free to contact my office with any further information, as I always appreciate hearing from Iowans.


Joni K. Ernst
United States Senator

Senator Ernst,

I very much appreciate your response and I was pleased to learn when S. 3093, the Keep Families Together and Enforce the Law Act, and S. 3091, the Protect Kids and Parents Act were being voted on that you were in support of them. However, I urge you to push for more.
It’s true that we’re not a border state, but this is a problem for our entire country. People who were held in Japanese internment camps (which are a horrible stain on our country’s history and an example of what we should never let happen again) are speaking out and reminding us that history is repeating itself. We are allowing fear and anxiety about immigrants to dictate our actions, and actions motivated by fear are very rarely good ones. We are once again turning a blind eye to the damage we are causing to those who are being detained, forgetting what we already learned in WWII. Maybe some Iowan’s want a strong border, but I don’t know many Iowans who would want these detention centers to be active if they knew the sheer horror of living inside them.
You say that children are being placed with a vetted sponsor within twenty days, but that simply isn’t enough. Fort Sill Army Base (a former Japanese internment camp, ironically enough) is currently being prepared as a temporary influx shelter for the over 40,000 children which have been detained between October 2018 and the end of April 2019. This is a very large number of children entering the U.S. through the U.S./Mexico border, which makes me skeptical that the majority of them are being placed with sponsors within twenty days.
This doesn’t address the issue of not being able to identify sponsors or family members for children once they’re separated from their families. It’s horrendous enough that we’re ripping children as young as young as infants from their parents’ arms–their parents who were trying to escape something so terrible they were willing to risk being arrested or imprisoned–but then to basically shrug and say, “Well, we can’t figure out who they belong to”; it’s a disgrace to everything this country stands for, and worse yet, it shows the world that we are a country that doesn’t care for children, especially if they’re black or brown.
I don’t have the answer for how to humanely and effectively curb immigration through the border, but I do know what we’re doing now isn’t right. Not even close. I’m urging you, as someone who has much more influence than me (although I do have the power to vote and I will be rallying as many people from Iowa as possible to vote in the upcoming presidential and senate votes), to do something, anything, to put a stop to this madness. Push for more legislation, push for President Trump to answer for the atrocities he’s caused in the name of “making America great again”, and push for children to be reunited with their families now. Not tomorrow, not a year from now, but right now.
Don’t keep sugarcoating what the government is doing, which is separating and imprisoning children (children, young, innocent children who are at the peak of development and can be damaged quickly for the remainder of their lives, all because we don’t have our act together as a country and fear brown children) with little effort to reunite them with their families or care for their physical and mental health. The government did this is in WWII by calling internment camps “war relocation centers”, and we know now that that’s not what they were. We were wrong then, as we are now. Please, Senator, be on the right side of history and take action.
Elizabeth VanCamp