WASHINGTON — Sen. Tom Coburn told an Obama administration official Wednesday that it was illegal to bar U.S. Rep. James Bridenstine from the Fort Sill facility housing some of the unaccompanied minors who recently crossed the southern border into the United States.
“I will just tell you I think you made a grievous error in denying Congressman Bridenstine access to that facility,” Coburn, R-Muskogee, told Mark Greenberg, an acting assistant secretary with the Department of Health and Human Services, at a Senate hearing.
“And I don’t know who made the decision. But first of all, I think it was illegal to keep a member of Congress from visiting one of these camps. Regardless if they come at 3 o’clock in the morning, they should have access.”
Bridenstine, R-Tulsa, was turned away last week from the Fort Sill facility, which is currently caring for more than 1,000 minors called “unaccompanied alien children” by the U.S. government. The Health and Human Services Department is in charge of the facility at Fort Sill, a U.S. Army post in Lawton.
More on the immigrants being housed at Fort Sill:
The department has scheduled a media tour at the Fort Sill facility for Thursday, but participants can’t bring in recording devices, ask questions or interact with the children or staff. Bridenstine has a tour scheduled for Saturday.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, and Gov. Mary Fallin have toured the facility.
Coburn and Greenberg had a brief exchange about how tightly the administration is controlling access to the facilities holding the minors, most of whom came from Central America. Fort Sill is one of three military bases that opened temporary housing last month.
Greenberg told Coburn, “We are making available tours for members of Congress, but we do seek to get the tours scheduled in advance so that we can ensure that they are structured in a way that the needed tour guides are in place and that it is consistent with the responsibilities that the staff at the facility have.”
Coburn asked how Greenberg could explain barring access to a member of Congress checking on a situation that has been termed a humanitarian crisis by the administration.
“We absolutely want to ensure that members of Congress are able to visit the facilities,” Greenberg said.
“Except when he showed up,” Coburn said.
“We are structuring tours on a regular basis for members of Congress and would very much want to ensure for him and for any other member of Congress that we can facilitate making tours available,” Greenberg said.
“So again, so I can understand … it was because it wasn’t structured that he was denied access?” Coburn asked.
Greenberg replied, “It is, as I understand it, arriving at the facility without it being a scheduled tour. And again, we would want to provide a scheduled tour.”
“I would think you’d want members of Congress to come on an unscheduled basis just as a good check,” Coburn said.
Greenberg said, “We want to encourage members of Congress to take tours. We are actually very …”
“Only at your time convenience,” Coburn said. “I’m saying a random check by a member of Congress is great for this country because they get to see what it is — not what it is prepared to be to show.”
“Senator Coburn, I should say we are proud of the facilities,” Greenberg said. “We encourage members of Congress to come and see them. We believe that members of Congress will be pleased by what they see if they come.”