Sen. Jeff Merkley says family separation policy can be "changed in a moment"

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, says that the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy can be "changed in a moment" if the president decides to act. Speaking to "CBS This Morning" on Monday along the U.S. border in Texas, Merkley said he had hoped the president would have taken action on Father's Day as Mr. Trump continues to place blame on Congressional Democrats for what he inaccurately refers to as federal law.

"This is completely an administration decision," said Merkley. He said in the first six weeks of its implementation, "2,000 children were separated not because of law but because of a Trump decision that can be changed in a moment."

Merkley was one lawmaker who first brought attention to the issue of the administration's policy of separating families at the border. The Democrat tried to visit an immigration detention facility in Brownsville, Texas earlier this month, but was soon denied access into the building. This prompted questions about what's going on behind closed doors at some of the country's detention facilities.

Merkley later described to CBS News a separate visit to a processing center in McAllen, Texas where he said children undergo initial screening and sorting in a "dog-kennel style" setting -- images which he said are now "seared" into his mind. 

During Merkley's second visit to the U.S.-Mexico border this week, he said he met with 10 mothers who were separated from their children, calling them "absolutely frantic" about their kids' well-being.  

Mekley said the U.S.' treatment of children of immigrants will get the attention of the international community as well. 

"For so long we have been champions of human rights around the world. We have talked to other dictators who have engaged in ethnic cleansing who are engaged in afflicting minorities and said 'stop, that's not the way you treat people and it's not the way you treat refugees coming to your border.' There's a whole international protocol of respect and dignity for refugees getting a fair hearing, and yet here we are violating it," he said. 

As for Republicans joining in Merkley's fight against the administration's policy, he said he's hopeful the issue will get "more space from Republicans" urging that "they too can champion the fact here in America we don't treat people in this fashion."

He said for now, however, many in the president's party are only promising to "call up and whisper to the administration" in private out of fear of upsetting their base. 

"They feel their base is watching news media that is so far to the right, they're describing this as a choice between open borders versus afflicting families and that's not the choice at all," Merkley added. 

  • Emily Tillett

    Emily Tillett is a politics reporter and video editor for CBS News Digital