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Grand Rapids — U.S. Reps. Bill Huizenga and Tim Walberg said Friday the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement denied them access to a West Michigan site providing services to Central American children separated from parents seeking asylum after entering the country illegally at the southern border. 

Huizenga and Walberg instead met with officials at Bethany Christian Services in Grand Rapids, an agency contracting with the federal government to provide foster care for children separated under a controversial “zero-tolerance” policy adopted but later reversed by President Donald Trump’s administration.

The Republican congressmen, who have sponsored and co-sponsored legislation seeking to require federal agencies to reunite separated families, said they were on a “fact-finding” mission and had expected access to the unnamed Bethany site, which ORR denied. They wouldn't say what Bethany officials told them.

“Why we were turned away, I don’t know,” said Walberg, R-Tipton. “That’s one of the things we are going to ask. We represent the people. We fund the government agencies that we’re talking about here, and they ought to be open in a transparent way for us to evaluate, assess and, hopefully, work alongside of them.”

The congressman declined to name the site, citing security risks, but Huizenga said they had planned to visit a site “working with temporary foster families to provide services to children” separated from their families in recent weeks, along with unaccompanied minors from Central America who flooded the U.S. in 2014.

“Unfortunately, the Office of Refugee Resettlement — not Bethany, but the federal government — denied us access from that,” said Walberg. “That was something we were told wouldn’t happen.”

In a meeting with reporters outside Bethany headquarters, Walberg said federal officials with ORR and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said last week during an Energy and Commerce Committee roundtable that they would waive a customary two-week request period for lawmakers site visits.

A Health and Human Services spokeswoman said Saturday the congressmen's assertion the department had indicated it would shorten the two-week notice requirement for lawmakers was "incorrect."

“We have had significant interest in members of Congress for facility visits," the department spokeswoman said. "To ensure a facility visit does not interfere with the safety and well-being of our UACs, we require a minimum two week notification at the convenience and availability of the facility. This has been policy since 2015.” 

The congressmen requested the site visit last week but said they were told late Thursday they were going to be denied. The Department of Health and Human Services and ORR did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“This was about fact-finding,” said Huizenga, R-Zeeland. “As you’ve noticed, there’s a lot of urban myths about what’s going on and what isn’t going on. Even whether kids are able to get hugs or not.”

“They are,” Walberg added.

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, had also requested a site visit through ORR but was told it couldn't accommodate him this week, according to his office.

Peters instead met with senior Bethany officials Friday because he had questions about the reunification process.

Bethany was caring for 61 kids as of Friday; they stay at a Bethany facility during the day and with foster families at night, Peters' office said.

One of Peters' concerns is that some children are not getting to talk to their parents as much as they'd like — only once a week, depending on their detention facility. 

Other members of Michigan's delegation have also requested site visits through ORR in recent weeks. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, said a visit at Bethany might come through for late next week, and the whole Michigan delegation would be invited. 

As of Wednesday, ORR had 2,047 children in its care as a result of having been separated from their parents at the border under the zero-tolerance policy, according to Commander Jonathan White, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at HHS.

Bethany released a statement Friday afternoon confirming officials met with Huizenga and Walberg, but the nonprofit did not reference their attempted site visit.

“As we continue to work diligently to ensure that children separated from asylum-seeking families are reunified with their families, we are in conversations with a number of elected officials,” Bethany said in a statement.

“Collectively, we hope to continue to partner with churches, community organizations and elected officials to advocate for legislative change so this crisis doesn’t happen again. It is by working together that we can truly make a difference in the lives of these children.”

As of last week, Bethany said it had tracked almost all parents for the 58 children for whom it had helped find shelter in Michigan.

Samaritas, a Detroit group that helps migrants, had been gearing up to find enough foster and group homes for 60 children expected by the end of the summer.

Bethany said Friday it has already reunited some children with their parents, and the number of kids under its care is "constantly changing."

The average age of the children is 7 to 9 years old, Bethany said. Whenever possible, separated children are able to talk to their parents by phone. 

The Trump administration has come under fire for the zero-tolerance policy that led to the child separations.

Trump last week signed an executive order meant to stop the separations, which he had said would not be possible without congressional action.

A federal judge in California on Tuesday ordered the administration to halt any family separations at the border and reunite families.

Huizenga has introduced the Family Reunification Act, which would instruct the Homeland Security secretary and other federal officials to use “all necessary means” to reunite children and parents recently separated at or near the border.

It had 21 co-sponsors as of Friday, including 18 Republicans and three Democrats.

Bipartisan lawmakers from Michigan have asked the Trump administration for details on the whereabouts and welfare of migrant children separated from their families, as well as procedures for expediting family reunification. 

Dingell led a letter signed by all female House Democrats last week specifically seeking information about shelters for young girls, as the government has only released photos of boys housed at detention centers.  

Walberg and Huizenga on Friday praised Bethany, which has also faced criticism for contracting with the federal government, but declined to say whether the Trump administration made any mistakes by temporarily enforcing the zero-tolerance policy.

“We’ve known that this has been a problem for a very last time,” Huizenga said of border laws and refugee application rules.

“This is something that has to be addressed, and it has certainly got the attention of, I think, the American people as well.”

With Trump, “for once we have an administration — good, bad or indifferent — that is not just willing to not just let the status quo be status quo,” Walberg said.

Democrats on Capitol Hill this week insisted the Trump administration needs to enunciate a plan to reunify families separated at the border, as border and shelter officials are seeking that guidance, they said.

Several Democrats said they want legislation to include a repeal of Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy of prosecuting all immigrants caught illegally crossing the border.

They also want a funding mechanism to reunite the children and parents separated by U.S. authorities.

“Also, if we are going to do anything around detention, I don’t want to see internment camps,” Rep. Jackie Speier, D-California, told reporters at the U.S. Capitol.

A ready alternative to detention is an Immigration and Customs Enforcement program that uses ankle monitors to track immigrants released from custody while they await court hearings, lawmakers said.

Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, said if Republicans in Congress were “really serious about addressing this issue of ripping babies from the arms of mothers,” they would have acted already.

“We need to do the legislative work,” Lawrence said this week. “We need to make sure we have a process to reunite these parents and children. If there is a plan, no one responsible for implementing it knew about it.”

Lawrence and Speier were among a group of 25 lawmakers who visited a McAllen, Texas, processing facility last weekend and saw fenced-in children sleeping on concrete floors, covering themselves with emergency “mylar” heat-resistant blankets under bright overhead lights that shine on them 24 hours a day.

“We don’t even do that to prisoners in America. We give them a cot,” Lawrence said. “Lights on 24 hours — that’s a technique used to torture someone.”

They also visited immigrant mothers at a detention facility in Port Isabel, Texas, where Lawrence said weeping mothers asked not to be released but for help finding their children.

“One mother actually said I talked to my child but all they did was cry. Another said, in order to talk to my child, I need money in my account,” Lawrence said. “Where is the compassion?”

joosting@detroitnews.com

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