Politics & Government

In 'defining moment of 21st century,' Columbia Mayor Benjamin will go to US border

In this file photo, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin delivers the State of the City address at City Hall.
In this file photo, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin delivers the State of the City address at City Hall. online@thestate.com

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin is leading a delegation of mayors to the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas on Thursday.

Benjamin, the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said the group has been spurred into action by their opposition to the Trump administration's immigration policy.

“This will be one of the defining moments of American character for the first half of the 21st century,” Benjamin, a Democrat, said to The State on Tuesday. “This process is horrendous, inhumane and inconsistent with who we are as a people. And it should end.”

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Benjamin said he is called to deal with the situation as a mayor and as a father.

Nearly 2,000 children have been separated from their families at the U.S. border in the past six weeks during a crackdown on illegal entries, according to The Associated Press. "U.S. protocol prohibits detaining children with their parents because the children are not charged with a crime and the parents are," The Associated Press reported.

Benjamin said the Conference of Mayors, a bipartisan group of Democrats and Republicans, unanimously called for an end to the policy of separating parents from their children.

"I'm worried about damaging families and the psychological effects on these children," Benjamin said. "We've got to do better."

Columbia SC Mayor Steve Benjamin reviewed the city’s accomplishments and highlighted his vision for its near future in his 2018 State of the City address at Columbia College.

Benjamin will fly out of Columbia Metropolitan Airport on Wednesday headed for Texas, where he will join a contingent of mayors from across the U.S. — including New York, Los Angeles and Miami. They will convene in El Paso and are planning to visit a detainee facility at Tornillo.

One issue with the visit is the mayors have yet to receive permission to enter, despite requesting access from the Department of Homeland Security.

On Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, both Florida Democrats, were denied access to a detention center for migrant children in South Florida.

After seeing what is happening first-hand, Benjamin said the mayors will try to offer help in the form of attorneys and counselors.

"If it means that we’ll violate the attorney general and Secretary (of Homeland Security Kirstjen) Nielsen’s policy of picking up a crying child, we’re prepared to go to jail for that,” Benjamin said.

Benjamin said the ultimate goal of the visit is to see the end of the policy and practice of separating families.

"I do pray that the president, attorney general and Homeland Security secretary's hearts soften and see the damage being done to children and families," Benjamin said. "It goes to the core of who we are, not just as Americans but as human beings."

Benjamin drew parallels between the current situation on the border and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, as well as the world's slow-acting response to the Holocaust.

"This is wrong!" Benjamin said. "This is wrong on every level.”

The Conference of Mayors is a national agenda-setting group of about 1,400 mayors representing cities with populations of 30,000 or more people.

The U.S. Border Patrol released video of a brief tour they gave reporters inside a detention facility in McAllen, Texas, where it holds families arrested at the southern U.S. border. The video shows adult and children housed in cages.

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