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Huddled masses

Last week, Americans learned that our federal government was confining 300 children, including babies and toddlers separated from their parents, in a building where they were hungry, cold, many were sick and they received no soap, toothbrushes or clean clothing during weeks of imprisonment.

Next week, Congress will be on Independence Day recess, enjoying that all-American holiday with family — or campaigning for re-election.

This week Congress must act. A $4.6 billion relief package to rush humanitarian aid to the U.S. southern border must pass House and Senate before lawmakers leave Washington this week. President Donald Trump must sign that legislation and direct all that funding to alleviate the suffering of the tens of thousands of children and adults who are in detention because they sought refuge in the United States.

Attorneys visiting the Customs and Border Patrol Facility in Clint, Texas, near the Mexican border last week described appalling conditions to the Associated Press: A four-year-old with matted hair who had gone without a shower for days; hungry, inconsolable children who were trying to care for each other without adult caregivers. Some of the hundreds of children had been locked inside the building for three weeks, 15 had the flu and 10 more were in "medical quarantine". Most were wearing the same dirty clothes they had on when they arrived. The detainees included young, teen-age mothers whose shirts were stained with breast milk and toddlers who were soiling their pants for lack of diapers and adults to change them.

Thirty children remained in that horrendous confinement this week after the Customs and Border Patrol announced that the rest had been relocated. It was unclear how much the food, clothing and sanitation provided had improved for these children.

The detention center in Clint, Texas, is not what makes America great. The conditions there, which may be replicated at other immigrant detention centers along our southern border, are a national disgrace.

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Congress and Trump have the power to stop this shameful treatment of immigrant children. The Senate and House both have border relief packages that would provide humanitarian aid immediately. These aid packages should coordinate with and support local relief efforts and nonprofits charities' work.

The president has threatened to start rounding up and deporting thousands of undocumented immigrants. After talking to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last weekend, he said he would delay the planned roundups for two weeks to give Congress time to pass legislation restricting who can receive asylum in the Unites States.

The president must first act to ease the humanitarian crisis on our doorstep — before arresting more immigrants. Children, women and men are suffering simply because they have sought to live in the United States. Yes, U.S. immigration laws need reforms and have needed reforms for many years. Not everyone who crosses the border should be allowed to stay, but many immigrants should be welcomed and offered an achievable path to citizenship.

The United States in an immigrant nation. Except for Native Americans, all of us came from foreign countries or are descendants of immigrants. Montana has a workforce shortage right now. We need immigrants as much as they need us.

Let us resolve to provide basic food, clothing, shelter and health care to the needy, extremely vulnerable immigrant children in U.S. custody. We cannot celebrate Independence Day knowing that our government is depriving innocent children of safety and human dignity. Some of these children will eventually return to their old homes in Central America. Some will stay in the United States. Congress and the president must act now to give them a better start on their U.S. life.

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Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.