We are a U.S. Congressman and a U.S. Citizen, and Border Agents Built a Cage Around Us | Opinion

Pro-Trump demonstrators protest near the US-Mexico border in Imperial Beach, San Diego County, as seen from Playas de Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico on December 15, 2018. GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP/Getty Images)

Earlier this week, we traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border to investigate reports that the Trump administration is illegally rejecting asylum seekers at official ports of entry. Our day on Monday was expected to be full but smooth. We would observe a handful of some of the most vulnerable refugees present themselves at the Otay Mesa legal Port of Entry to make their asylum claims, then stop for lunch before visiting shelters and other organizations working at the border.

We never made it to lunch.

Instead, we spent the night in frigid weather with buckets for bathrooms as border patrol agents built a cage around two sitting members of Congress, U.S. citizens, and refugee children as young as 3 years old.

Before we address this stunning display of the Trump administration's contempt for the rule of law, let's rewind to how we came to be at the border in the first place. Last month, in violation of U.S. and international law, President Trump attempted to ban people who cross the border between ports of entry from applying for asylum, a move blocked this week by a federal judge. While applying for asylum is not illegal, the Trump administration is trying everything it can to criminalize the process as part of a venomous anti-immigrant campaign best recognized for the barbaric family separation policy that tore thousands of children from their parents this summer.

U.S. law allows people to apply for asylum at any port of entry, but the Trump administration is routinely turning applicants away under an illegal "metering" policy created to stall border processing and force refugees into a months-long wait in Mexico. This strategy has effectively manufactured a humanitarian crisis at the border. Women and children fleeing sexual violence and death threats pile up in makeshift shelters, where they are easy targets for criminals and Mexican drug cartels. Two Honduran children were killed last weekend in an attempted robbery during their forced wait in Tijuana.

Among those trapped at the border was Maria Meza, now known across the world for the iconic photo of her family fleeing a tear gas attack from the U.S. over Thanksgiving weekend. She was forced into hiding after a right-wing media personality and her tens of thousands of social media followers began harassing her and her children. Maria and her family were among the small group of especially vulnerable refugees—including unaccompanied children—who we and Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragan traveled to the border to accompany to a legal port of entry.

What was supposed to be a simple, lawful process turned into a nightmare. After we crossed onto U.S. soil, border agents wearing riot gear refused to process the asylum claims, denied our requests to view the processing facility, and tried to trick or coerce the group back into Mexican territory. At every stage, our group was polite, compliant and vested in de-escalating any conflict. But eventually, without explanation, border agents brought out metal barriers and corralled us, right on top of the international border line.

The U.S. citizens in the group were free to leave—but that would have left the refugees even more vulnerable to manipulation and misdirection. We chose to stay with the group, mostly of children, huddled overnight on the cold concrete as border agents conducted drills around us in full riot gear, brandished zip ties, and routinely woke us up to "check in." A few hurled verbal abuse about "vile" migrants who are "criminals", "bringing disease."

This treatment of two sitting members of Congress and asylum-seekers who were following the letter of U.S. law is stunning. Not because it is the worst abuse of human rights displayed by the Trump administration (we saw the trauma they inflicted on separated children,) but because it illustrates how deeply this President has decayed the rule of law in a country that modelled democracy for the modern world.

On January 3rd, Democrats will take control of the House of Representatives, after American voters resoundingly rejected the Republican platform of anti-immigrant race-baiting and fearmongering. Democrats will have the ability—and the responsibility—to do what Republicans refused to: exercise Congress's oversight role to hold the Trump administration accountable for the cruel and inhumane treatment of immigrant children and families that is making a mockery of our democratic values and our legal system.

The refugees turning to us at the border are risking a dangerous journey out of desperation to reach safety and build a better life. Our country has always been strong and secure enough to welcome them. The true threat to us is not families and children asking for help; it's the Trump administration's attack on core American values of family, fairness and compassion, and the blatant disregard for the rule of rule of law by those who are sworn to uphold it.

Rep. Jimmy Gomez represents California's 34th Congressional District. He is a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and serves on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Sandra Cordero is director of the Families Belong Together coalition.

The views expressed in this article are the authors' own.