WASHINGTON — Rep. Jim Bridenstine said Monday that he wants “unfettered access” to the Fort Sill facility housing unaccompanied alien children, and he criticized the media tour scheduled for Thursday at the U.S. Army post in southwestern Oklahoma.
Bridenstine, R-Tulsa, who was denied access to the facility when he arrived last week without an appointment, has been offered a tour on Saturday. He sent a letter to an official with the Department of Health and Human Services saying he’d accept the tour but that he planned to make recurring visits.
He wrote in his letter, to Sonja Nesbitt, a deputy assistant secretary, that it was “unacceptable that a representative of the people be limited to pre-planned, showcase visits to a facility so critical to the well-being of children. Just as foster parents in the State of Oklahoma are subject to unannounced visits by the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, federal representatives of the people should be able to access UAC facilities at times of their choosing.”
In an interview, Bridenstine said he wasn’t seeking a confrontation at the Fort Sill facility, but he insisted that he be allowed to see what is happening.
“If they want a confrontation, they can create one,” he said.
Fort Sill is one of three U.S. military bases being used for temporary housing as unaccompanied minors from central America stream across the border in ever-increasing numbers. Gov. Mary Fallin and U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, visited the facility two weeks ago.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, whose district includes Fort Sill, said Monday that members of Cole’s staff visited on June 20 and that a date is being arranged for the congressman to visit in August.
The Fort Sill facility can hold up to 1,200 children and had 1,001 on June 25, according to a memo from the Obama administration to U.S. lawmakers. The other two military bases — one in Texas and one in California — are also near capacity.
The Health and Human Services Department sent media members an advisory on Monday stating that a tour of the Fort Sill facility would be held Thursday but that no recording devices, questions or interaction would be allowed.
“The purpose of this 40-minute tour is to show members of the press the interior of the shelter and explain the care we provide while these children remain in our custody,” the advisory states. “The tour guide will detail what goes on from room to room and the services youth are provided on a daily basis.”
Bridenstine said journalists should not agree to the restrictions.
“This is unsatisfactory,” he said.
The department “is trying to muzzle the media and hide the human tragedy that has resulted directly from the Administration’s failure to enforce the law,” Bridenstine said in a news release.
Bridenstine is among the Republican lawmakers who have blamed the Obama administration for the surge of unaccompanied children from Central American countries. A 2008 law makes it more complicated to deport the children than ones from Mexico, but the influx is the result of not securing access points on the southern border and sending a message that encourages illegal immigration, Bridenstine said Monday.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, interviewed Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said, “Our message to those who come here illegal: Our border is not open to illegal migration. And we are taking a number of steps to address it, including turning people around faster. We've already dramatically reduced the turnaround time, the deportation time.”
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, led a bipartisan tour of the Rio Grande Valley sector of the southern border last week and said the “vast majority of Central American minors who are unaccompanied meet up with their parents who are already in the United States illegally.
“Further, these parents often had a role in smuggling the minors into the United States.”
Bridenstine, a former U.S. Navy pilot who worked for a time on anti-trafficking missions, said “the most brutal organizations you can think of” are smuggling the children. Many are raped and abused, and others are sold into slavery, he said.
“The tragedy that is occurring requires unfettered access,” he said in his letter to the Health and Human Services Department. “My visits will be recurring and may include other members of Congress. On each occasion, I expect to be admitted to the UAC facility without delay and treated professionally and courtesy.”