WASHINGTON — Hawaii’s two U.S. senators, Mazie Hirono and Brian Schatz, visited the U.S.-Mexico border in recent weeks to see for themselves the conditions facing migrants fleeing violence in their home countries.

On July 19, Schatz travelled to McAllen, Texas, with 13 other Democrats, including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, to tour U.S. Border Patrol facilities, meet with nonprofit leaders providing assistance to migrants and speak with some of the people seeking asylum.

Hirono, meanwhile, visited Border Patrol stations in El Paso and Clint, Texas, with Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine on July 26, just days after Hirono participated in a hearing to investigate conditions at the border.

FILE - In this July 17, 2019 file photo, migrant children sleep on a mattress on the floor of the AMAR migrant shelter in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. The American Civil Liberties Union said Tuesday, July 30, 2019 that more than 900 children have been separated from their families at the border since a judge ordered last year that the practice be sharply curtailed. The ACLU says about one of every five children separated is under 5 years old. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte, File)

In this July 17 file photo, migrant children sleep on a mattress on the floor of a shelter in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. The American Civil Liberties Union said Tuesday that more than 900 children have been separated from their families at the border since a judge ordered last year that the practice be sharply curtailed. The ACLU says about one of every five children separated is under 5 years old.

AP

The senators also visited a shelter run by Annunciation House, a nonprofit that’s been taking care of migrants for decades.

Civil Beat caught up with Hirono to discuss her trip to Texas. She’s the only immigrant in the U.S. Senate, and she represents a state where one in five residents is an immigrant. She has said her mother moved to the U.S. from Japan to escape an abusive husband.

This was Hirono’s third visit to the border in recent years. She travelled to McAllen in 2014, and last December she toured detention centers in Tornillo, Texas, that she described as “internment camps.”

The Hawaii senator said she wants the Trump administration to release $450 million in aid to the “Northern Triangle” countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to help curb the violence and bolster the local economies.

And she expressed disappointment in former Hawaii resident Kevin McAleenan, the acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, who she once supported when he was nominated by Trump to be commissioner of Customs and Border Protection.

“If you don’t feel some shame or some empathy from seeing pictures of all these people locked up, that means that your soul is dead or dying.” — Sen. Mazie Hirono

“I’ve been very much concerned about this administration’s immigration policies,” Hirono said. “It started with the Muslim ban and then doing away with (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and exposing 800,000 participants to potential deportation.”

Schatz declined to be interviewed about his visit to the border. A spokesman directed Civil Beat to a statement the senator issued shortly after his travels and a link to his Twitter feed where he described the visit.

“What I saw was awful,” Schatz said in the statement. “People are being held in overcrowded quarters and unable to shower for days. Many are suffering from trauma and some aren’t receiving the care they need. It’s inhumane.”

This interview with Hirono has been edited for clarity and brevity.

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono spoke with Civil Beat about her recent visit to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Nick Grube/Civil Beat

Q: What did it mean for you, talking to people who were fleeing violence, given your own mother was escaping an abusive relationship when she came to the U.S.?

In El Paso, Tim and I were able to speak to a few of the people who were waiting to go through the process. There were three fathers with their children. Tim can speak Spanish so I asked him to please ask them what their hopes were for themselves in our country.

One father really started to cry. He’s from Guatemala. He said there’s no way he can go back to the violence in Guatemala, and that all he wanted was a place to be safe and for his children to be safe and to get an education. These are the kinds of hopes that all immigrants have.

When we were in Clint which is mainly a facility for children, we were not able to talk with any of the young people who were there. That facility, not too long before we were there, had something on the order of 700 children in it even though the facility is set up for only about 100 or so.

There weren’t that many children there, but those who were there we were not able to talk to them. When we asked why (the Border Patrol staff) said that’s what they were told to tell us.

Can you describe a moment or interaction that was particularly poignant for you?

When we talked with fathers who were with their young children about their hopes, it was very telling, and it is basically what the witnesses had said at our hearing.

The witnesses said when we place children in these facilities even for short periods of time and when we separate children from their parents we are possibly doing lasting damage to them psychologically and emotionally.

I know how important it is to keep families together and that’s why it was particularly cruel for the president to impose a policy that required children to be separated from their parents

The other thing was that when we got to the Annunciation House facility, where the walls were painted with murals, there was just a sense of freedom.

Even I felt a sigh of relief being there. When we were able to talk to the people there, they were just so happy just to be united with the relatives they have in our country.

You’ve introduced legislation seeking to protect migrant children who come to this country seeking asylum, but those bills are co-sponsored only by Democrats. In a Republican-controlled Senate with Donald Trump in the White House that essentially means those bills are dead on arrival. So what can you do, really, to address your concerns?

We have to continue to shine the light on what’s going on with the very harmful and cruel policies of this administration.

If you don’t feel some shame or some empathy from seeing pictures of all these people locked up, that means that your soul is dead or dying.

So we need to shine a light, but also one hopes that (voters will) care enough that they will vote out the Republicans who continue to not support the kind of changes that we’re seeking in the bills that we’re introducing.

That’s what it comes down to. You have to change the people who are making decisions here.

By the way, I want to emphasize that Democrats are not against border security.

We’re being told that we are for open borders. No, we’re for a comprehensive immigration reform that would deal with the immigration issues that confront our country both on legal and on undocumented immigration.

Do you anticipate you’ll see comprehensive immigration reform before the end of your current term in the U.S. Senate?

There’s always hope and that’s why the one practical thing would be to change the decision-makers here.

I would say that (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell has a huge role to play in what is put on the agenda for the Senate to vote on. He absolutely refuses, basically, to do anything that the president doesn’t want, and the president doesn’t want to do anything that truly addresses the immigration issue.

People are going to keep coming to our country in the hopes of a better life for themselves and their families as long as the conditions in their homes expose them to murder and mayhem.

The president is holding back $450 million in aid to the Northern Triangle countries, aid that’s supposed to go toward helping them establish a rule of law. I mean, I realize it’s not going to happen with $450 million but it’s an ongoing commitment that we have to make.

The rule of law creates better economic opportunities for them. The idea is to help change the environment in those countries so that they do not continue to flee into our country.

You supported the confirmation of Kevin McAleenan as Customs and Border Protection commissioner. How do you feel he’s doing now as the acting secretary of Homeland Security?

When you enter the Trump moral dead zone I think it’s really hard to do the right thing. I think he’d like to. I had worked with him on other issues, and that is why I agreed to speak on his behalf. But I did say he was joining an administration that I have concerns about, of course.

I think it’s difficult for anybody who joins this administration unless you pretty much go along with the president’s programs.

How does your visit to the border relate to your work as a senator from Hawaii? Are there any connections you can draw so that people on the islands can better understand why this issue is one that both you and they should care about?

Aside from the native people, everybody else in Hawaii are immigrants.

We have a very high percentage of first generation immigrants in Hawaii. We understand what the immigrant story is. We understand what it’s like to come to a new place to start a better life for yourself and your family. We understand how important family unity is. We understand how important it is not to tear children away from the arms of their parents.

These are not very remote experiences for a lot of people in Hawaii.

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