Congressman Jim Hagedorn of Blue Earth came face-to-face with some of his constituents in Olmsted County over the weekend at a town hall event. Things started off orderly with reminders from the emcee to keep things civil with a polite discussion about the issues.
But it didn’t take long to hit a subject for which civility is a less than tenable response. A constituent wrote in a question saying she was “very concerned” about family separation on the United States-Mexico border.
“This is causing emotional damage to these kids,” the emcee read. “How do you justify this government-sponsored child abuse?”
Hagedorn started by taking some of the lead out of the question. It’s not “government-sponsored child abuse,” he said. These detention centers were not “concentration camps.” The crowd immediately responded with some scattered boos.
“Hang on,” he said. “This is the United States of America. This is the greatest country in the world. There is a difference between a concentration camp as we know it… and what’s going on. The people that are there, they can leave. Nobody is holding them against their will.”
That remark turned a few heads. As one constituent asked, “How is a three-month-old baby, or a four-year-old, gonna leave a facility like that?”
Or, for that matter, how is a 5-year-old supposed to pay bond, even if he’s eligible? How “willing” is anyone to stay in a detention center while their case winds its way through an impossibly backlogged immigration court?
"Fair enough," Hagedorn responded, before launching into a less specific answer about wanting an “orderly” system for immigrants to come into the country “legally.” (He wasn’t immediately available for comment, so it’s difficult to say what he could have possibly meant by his remark in the first place.)
But the thrust of the issue is this: Immigration court is so saturated right now that detention centers and Border Patrol facilities are becoming increasingly overcrowded, often to the point that children stay there longer than what is even allowable by federal law, regardless of whether they're willing. On Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office Inspector General released a report calling the conditions “dangerous.”
Some children have been sitting for days without access to showers, clean laundry, and working toilets. Two facilities weren’t even supplying them with hot meals until the department checked in, forcing the kids to survive on bologna sandwiches.
Even worse, the feds are wildly overpaying private companies for these services. In exchange for Third World conditions, the cost per person runs $750 a day, roughly twice as much as you'd pay at the finest hotels in downtown Minneapolis.
But these problems are a long way from Olmsted -- and by the looks of it, a long way from Hagedorn.
“We have compassion for everyone,” he said. But “first and foremost” for “the American people.”
“We defend this country and we protect the American people. That’s the first thing that we do.”
You can watch the whole thing in the clip below.