Dozens of women and children packed Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst’s office in Des Moines for several hours over the last two days to protest squalid conditions at immigration detention centers along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The group arrived Tuesday at the Federal Building hoping to speak with Ernst over the phone, who currently is in Washington, D.C., while the Senate is in session.
They brought a one-page letter with them, signed “Iowa Moms Against the Camps,” demanding Ernst “Tell Trump to cancel the raids; Close the detention camps and get kids out of cages; Let asylum seekers go through the process without being detained in camps; Tour the detention centers.”
The conditions migrant children experience once apprehended by immigration officials at the southern border have been a source of controversy this summer, particularly in light of a June 21 New York Times article detailing “unsafe and unsanitary” living quarters at a detention center in Clint, Texas.
Across the state Friday, “Lights for Liberty” vigils will be held in 11 Iowa cities to protest the detention centers. More than 500 vigils are scheduled to take place in the U.S. and around the world.
Shelley Skuster, one of the Iowans in attendance Tuesday, wrote on Facebook that “crowds” had waited several hours at Ernst’s office, “and you can’t even issue a statement? You can’t even say you CARE?!”
“Don’t say you’re PRO-LIFE when innocent children are being ripped apart from their families, traumatized in inhumane conditions and DYING under your watch,” Skuster wrote.
People held signs reading, “Joni: Choose Your Side Of History.”
The group returned Wednesday afternoon, this time with an appointment to speak with Ernst over the phone.
Ernst talked back and forth with the group for about 20 minutes before ending the call. Ernst told those gathered at her office she opposed separating families at the border and supported keeping them together, citing two pieces of legislation surrounding the issue that she has co-sponsored. The senator said she will visit the border soon to see the situation up close.
“Senator Ernst was pleased to talk with and hear from this group today on these important issues,” said Brendan Conley, an Ernst spokesperson, in a statement to Starting Line. “As folks know, Senator Ernst prioritizes hearing from all Iowans, which is why she holds regular public events and town halls across the state on her 99 County Tour, including two public town halls just this past week.”
Those in the room, however, did not appear pleased with the senator’s remarks.
“Certainly, I think there are a couple of things that we might disagree on,” said Ernst, telling the group she does not support abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to a voice recording of her phone call. “But by and large, I do agree that we need a different, streamlined immigration system so that we can bring additional folks into the United States.”
She pushed back on accusations that she supported “abuse” of children held at detention centers run by U.S. immigration officials.
“I do not support abuse of children,” Ernst said, forcefully. “I am not supporting that. Abuse happens to children, and I do not support it.”
The senator said the group was not allowing her to “speak my piece,” and directed them to work with her staff on answers to their questions.
Before she ended the call, however, Ernst said was “headed to the border in several weeks. I will compile information about what I have seen at the border and I will provide that back to you.”
Kimberly Graham, one of three Democrats running to unseat Ernst in 2020, said on Twitter Tuesday, “I wholeheartedly support and join in the demands of #momsagainstthecamps.”
Democratic candidate Eddie Mauro said, “I stand with #MomsAgainstTheCamps, and we must keep fighting for comprehensive immigration reform and recognize the inhumanity happening on our borders.”
By Elizabeth Meyer