Republican Representative William Hurd addressed members of the Texas press Tuesday morning, placing blame for the situation at the Clint Border Patrol Station on his “friends on the other side of the aisle.”
Last week, Human Rights Watch lawyers found 255 children in deplorable conditions at the Clint Border Patrol Station outside of El Paso. 59 children were under the age of 12.
Representative Veronica Escobar, echoing the outrage and confusion of so many, posed the question, “Who will be held accountable for these atrocities?”
Hurd, who represents the 23rd district of Texas where the Clint Station sits, hasn’t personally visited the location – although members of his staff have.
He pointed out that the facility is “in essence no different than many of the other facilities on the border,” designed to hold a handful of people for a handful of hours, not hundreds of people for multiple days.
Hurd agreed that the Clint facility was over capacity, with not enough staff on hand. However, according to Hurd, there was baby formula and diapers on hand, as well as snacks and three meals a day.
Hurd, who is pushing Congress for a supplemental bill of 60 million to support border communities, said Tuesday that without Democrats placing additional funds with ICE or HHS, these issues will not be resolved.
“The reasons that you have problems with a facility that was not designed to do detention is because HHS (Health and Human Services) doesn’t have the capacity to take on additional kids. Clint and most facilities were not a detention facility – that is the broader problem,” said Hurd.
Additionally, Hurd pushed for faster deportations to keep holding centers from becoming overcrowded; stating, “people should be being deported within 21 days.”
As for the Clint station, Tuesday morning, a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) official shared that roughly 100 children were sent back to the Clint Border Patrol Station.
The official justified the action saying the initial movement of minors cleared the earlier reported overcrowding. The official echoed a similar sentiment as Hurd, mentioning unlimited snacks as proof of fine conditions.
Meanwhile, the confusion on the border continues.
Military-style tents at the West Texas Detention Center in Sierra Blanca and the Ysleta Border Patrol Station in El Paso house migrants.
It is unclear to those questioning the conditions of these tents who is being housed where – especially as the MPP (Remain in Mexico) program continues to send more and more individuals back to Mexico.
Author/Photographer: Jordyn Rozensky – El Paso Herald Post
With the large surge of Central American families and unaccompanied children arriving in El Paso in the last year, officials with the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol have exceeded their capacity on numerous occasions.
In order to respond to the large number of families and unaccompanied children crossing illegally along the U.S./Mexico Border between Texas and New Mexico, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection opened two facilities, which are ready for use immediately.
Members of the media were given a tour of the facilities on Thursday.
One of the facilities is located in Northeast El Paso, behind the main headquarters of the El Paso sector, and the second is located in Donna, Texas which is near McAllen.
According to the U.S. Border Patrol, apprehensions for unauthorized immigrants in the El Paso sector have increased by more than 300 percent.
Additional complications occur when the CBP’s current holding facilities are primarily meant for unaccompanied men, not family units.
This has led to national attention and criticism regarding how and where CBP temporarily holds the Central American immigrants while they wait to be turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, the Department of Homeland Security if they are unaccompanied minors or Non-Governmental Organizations such as nonprofits such as churches and the Annunciation House of El Paso.
“There are not enough agents on the line,” Ramiro Cordero, Border Patrol Agent and Special Operations Supervisor said. “The agents are now processing aliens, processing families. Escorting individuals to hospitals, transporting, feeding, changing diapers – that is not the job of a Border Patrol agent. So, we are moving on – so we are building facilities such as what you see behind me to alleviate and help the process flow a little bit smoother and quicker.”
The facilities – known as “soft-sided temporary” facilities – are provided by Deployed Resources LLC of Rome, New York, according to the CBP. They are currently contracted for a cost of $36.9 million for a four-month base period; with an additional four months if needed.
Cordero said when an individual is taken to the facility, they will enter the small support soft-sided building first – which is approximately 12,300 square feet. There they will enter, and be medically screened upon arrival.
From there, they can use the shower facilities, which contain 32 stalls; which are divided into two separate sections for men and women.
If a family unit arrives and they need to bathe their children, CBP will not get involved in the process, but will allow the parent to decide how the child should be bathed.
Then they will be issued bracelets which will have designated colors. The colors will direct them to the temporary holding facility.
The holding facility is broken up into 4 sections and each section can hold up to 125 individuals.
Each section, or pod, contains 8 porta-potty toilets, with the ventilation leading outside. The toilets are going to be cleaned daily by outside contracted companies. Additionally, each facility has 4-hand washing stations; and 125 vinyl covered sleeping pads as well.
In the center of each pod stands a 7-foot guard tower which will be staffed 24-7.
Each pod will contain at least 1 medical technician, a doctor and a medical professional who will either be contracted or who will be a certified EMT or Medically licensed CBP officer or U.S. Coast Guard member.
The pods are air conditioned and each pod will have video surveillance. There are cameras on each corner of the pods.
There is also a laundry trailer with 40 washers and dryers; storage containers for detainee property; two 1,200 KVA generators for electrical services; and a refrigerated trailer for food storage and preparation.
According to the CBP agents, the El Paso sector alone has apprehended 94,000 individuals since October 1 of last year; compared to 13,000 individuals in the previous year during the same time frame. That’s an average of about 580 apprehensions a day Cordero said.
Roger Maier, spokesperson for the U.S. CBP, said on average they are processing 600 to 850 individuals per day.
On Wednesday alone, Border Patrol agents took custody of 243 immigranats, made up of family groups with small children and unaccompanied juveniles. This group was picked up at around 1:30 a.m. near the Antelope Wells port of entry in New Mexico.
Just 40 minutes later agents apprehended another group of 219 people at the border wall near downtown El Paso. Then on Thursday morning another 209 immigrants were apprehended yet again at Antelope Wells.
These facilities, Cordero said, will help. And, ideally – Maier said – an individual should be turned over to the appropriate agency within 72 hours.
“This is something we are doing because we have gotten to capacity,” Cordero said. “We have already exceeded our capacity and we need to have this in place so we can have people in humane places and we can transfer them in and out of the process. We at the border patrol are the first interaction – the first piece of the puzzle – our job is to enforce the law and our job is to process them and turn these individuals to someone else – in this case ICE enforcement removal operations.”
While the facility is currently meant to house family units, Cordero added that this could change in the future – depending on the situation and the circumstances.
Earlier this year the CPB and the U.S. General Services Administration had proposed to build a facility that would house as many as 800 people, which according to media reports, could have been the Hoover Manufacturing Facility.
But a group of business leaders in El Paso launched a campaign against the move under a Change.org petition, Action El Paso, asking the federal government to include city leaders in the conversation.
According to the petition business leaders are asking the following be adhered to before the GSA and CBP move forward with constructing the facility:
The community must be allowed to provide input on where the facility will be built. The federal government cannot come in and uproot El Pasoans’ quality of life, regional economy, and community cohesion for its own gains.
The community must have assurances regarding how this center will be staffed. We have seen too many instances where inadequate staffing has resulted in neglect and mistreatment of children and families.
The community must have assurances regarding how the health and well-being of families held in the processing center will be prioritized. It is a travesty that families are denied fundamental rights and basic dignities, such as a bed and access to health services, because processing facilities have been so poorly planned.
When asked about this, Maier said he wasn’t sure what the status of the facility was at the moment.
“That was a centralized processing center that we were looking to stand up – but that’s taking longer than expected for a number of reasons – so this (temporary soft sided shelter) is our quick response to that. But that’s still in the works – yes.”
Author: Alex Hinojosa | Gallery: Andres ‘Ace’ Acosta – Chief Photographer – El Paso Herald Post
Staff Report December 19, 2018NewsComments Off on State Rep. González Announces Yarn Drive for Children in Tornillo Shelter
On Wednesday, State Representative Mary E. González announced a Yarn Drive for children being detained in the Tornillo Shelter.
“Many constituents, as well as people from across the country, have reached out to my office asking how to help the young people held at the Tornillo detention center, especially around the holidays,” said Rep. González. “This yarn drive is a small but meaningful way to help those kids in need.”
Rep. González’s goal is to collect 1,200 spools of yarn by the end of December.
“As a community, we must ensure that we are doing everything we can to help the youngest and most vulnerable among us,” Rep. González said. “If you are able to donate to the drive, it will truly brighten the day of kids who are in detention in Tornillo.”
Community members interested in donating yarn to children being detained in the Tornillo Shelter can contact Joshua Carter Guerra, District Director, at (915) 851-6632, or via email at Joshua.firstname.lastname@example.org
The link to the Amazon Gift Registry for this drive can also be found here.
This is frustrating, at best: According to the latest tally, more than 400 kids separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border remain separated from their parents. More than 300 parents of those kids are now in their home countries, and 199 of them waived reunification.
Remember when this issue rose to the top of the news? That was so many headlines ago.
And yet, the problem persists.
What started with the “zero tolerance” policy at the border — a stepped-up enforcement program that resulted, among other things, in separations of migrants and their children — has evolved into an interminable, expensive and embarrassing demonstration of immigration bureaucracy at its worst.
The latest filings from the lawyers for the government and for the people suing them — the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU — say 416 kids are “children remaining in care where the adult associated with the child is not eligible for reunification or is not available for discharge at this time.”
Some of the kids aren’t going to be reunified: 199 adults have “indicated desire against reunification.” That’s not broken down to show how many kids that would involve, but if you do the math, it’s a minimum of 100. The accounting started with 2,654 children, including 103 under the age of five. The latest numbers include 14 toddlers among the 416 kids who remain unconnected to their parents.
The adults are scattered: 304 are presently outside the U.S.; nine are in federal, state or local custody; 34 are “red-flagged” either for background checks or for safety or well-being of the children.
More than 15 percent of the kids in the initial cohort are still under the care of the federal government. Here’s a measure of the progress they’re making; between the latest report and the report from the week before, authorities discharged 24 kids from the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s care. Two dozen.
The rest are getting food, shelter, clothing and schooling — though the state of Texas says it will not fund two public charter schools that are located in federally funded shelters and are educating migrant children who entered the U.S. without adults or who were separated at the border from their families. State officials say the cost of educating those kids should be borne by the federal government.
Wouldn’t it be something if government officials responded to reuniting kids with their migrant parents as quickly as they pop off about the latest tennis shoe commercial? Politicians — who’ve been altogether silent about messes like an immigration policy and practice that seem incoherent and illogical to both conservatives and liberals — suddenly pipe up when something worthy of a midafternoon cable TV debate arises.
Real policy is hard. Sorting out the separated families is a straight-up demonstration of how slowly real problems get worked out. Federal immigration officials backed off the zero-tolerance policy when the family separations accelerated; President Trump signed an executive order in June to end the policy altogether.
Cleaning up has taken longer. Adults were deported before the connections between parents and children were sorted out. What was supposed to be a policy aimed at unlawful entries into the U.S. snared some who lawfully presented themselves to U.S. authorities as asylum seekers, according to court testimony.
And now, the U.S. finds itself the caretaker and guardian of more than 400 kids, many of whom will never be reunited with their families. The people looking for tighter borders weren’t seeking this outcome. The people who’d like looser restrictions on immigrants weren’t either. It’s a failure.
It’s not a fresh problem anymore. That sometimes has the effect of moving something noteworthy out of the headlines, as fresher noteworthy things happen. For all of that, it’s the same problem it was — or worse, since the separations have persisted — at the beginning of the summer. It’s just harder to get a government to clean up a mess as quickly as it can make one.
Despite a federal judge’s order preventing immigration officials from arbitrarily holding asylum-seeking immigrants in federal detention, attorneys representing some of the detainees said Tuesday that the majority of the immigrants are still locked up for no reason.
Last month, U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg granted a preliminary injunction preventing Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents from denying parole to asylum-seekers without an individual determination as to why. The lawsuit includes as defendants the El Paso, Detroit, Los Angeles, Newark and Philadelphia ICE field offices. The El Paso office covers West Texas and New Mexico.
Michael Tan, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union and one of the lead lawyers on the case, said that as of last week ICE had granted parole to about 25 percent of the asylum-seekers included in the lawsuit.
It’s a far cry from the 90 percent rate that existed before President Donald Trump took office, he said, which leads the attorneys to believe that ICE continues to detain people without cause.
“There are reasons to believe that the government continues to ignore its own parole policy,” he said. That policy states that a person seeking asylum who has established his or her true identity should be released if they are not a flight risk or a threat to the public at large.
Tan said he understands that ICE officials aren’t required to grant parole to everyone, but he said that after speaking to attorneys working on the ground in the five field offices, ICE agents are still “checking boxes” for the sole purpose of denying the relief.
“To be clear, I am not saying there is some magic number,” he said. “[But] they are being denied parole based on a boilerplate checklist.”
From July 2, when Boasberg issued the order, through August 17, 145 out of 563 asylum-seekers had been granted parole. That includes 78 of the 286 El Paso cases.
A spokesperson in the El Paso ICE field office did not respond to a request for comment.
Kristen Greer Love, an attorney with the ACLU of New Mexico who is representing some of the asylum-seekers being held in El Paso and New Mexico, said ICE officials don’t explain the reasons a person was denied parole once their case is reviewed.
“It is sort of a blanket statement that the person is a flight risk or a danger to the community, or hasn’t presented adequate evidence to prove their identity,” she said. “ICE appears to be using, for example, the flight risk [excuse] even when people have presented robust evidence of having a sponsor who is either a U.S. citizen or a lawful permanent resident in the United States who has the means and commitment to make sure the person has the means to show up at the immigration proceedings.”
Love added that most of the people she’s spoken to have been detained since they arrived at the port of entry and sought asylum, which makes it impossible that they have a criminal history in this country.
Tan said the ACLU will ask the judge to grant its motion for more discovery to see if ICE can show it is complying with the order. The judge also asked the agency to submit a monthly report of parole determinations until further notice.
“It’s basically a fact-finding process where we can investigate whether the government is in fact complying the court order. If it’s not … we’ll ask the court to order additional remedies,” he said.
The Texas Tribune August 10, 2018NewsComments Off on Detention Center for Immigrant Children in Tornillo Will Remain Open Through mid-September
TORNILLO — The immigration detention facility for undocumented immigrant minors in this West Texas outpost will remain open another month, federal and state officials confirmed on Friday.
The facility was erected in June and was originally scheduled to close in July, but federal officials extended the contract with its service provider until Aug. 13. But a spokeperson for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families said the facility will now be up and running until Sept. 13.
The detention center, which critics have called a “tent city,” houses unaccompanied minors who crossed the border illegally.
“HHS will continue to assess the need for this temporary shelter at Tornillo Land Port of Entry, Tornillo, Texas, based on projected need for beds and current capacity of the program,” the spokesperson said in a news release. “HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement is continuously monitoring bed capacity available to provide shelter for minors who arrive at the U.S. border unaccompanied and are referred to HHS for care by immigration officials, as well as the information received from interagency partners, to inform any future decisions or actions.”
San Antonio-based BCFS Health and Human Services currently operates the facility, but the HHS spokesperson said in an email that no new contracts for operations at Tornillo were awarded. A spokesperson for the company did not respond to an email requesting comment on the latest extension.
The announcement came the same day Democratic state Reps. César Blanco of El Paso, Mary González of Clint, Eddie Rodriguez of Austin, Ina Minjarez of San Antonio, Diego Bernalof San Antonio and Gina Hinojosa of Austin, all members of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, toured the facility. They said there are more than 170 immigrant minors in Tornillo, but none are children who were separated from their parents or guardians under President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy on immigration. The facility previously housed a small number of those children, but they have all been released, Minjarez said.
The lawmakers said that while attention from the border crisis has somewhat shifted to other topics, they wanted to keep a spotlight on the Trump administration’s immigration policies and its effect on the minor children. The Tornillo facility was constructed after the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy was enacted and was only necessary because it led to an influx of children in other shelters who would otherwise have been left with their parents or guardians.
“We are the only country in the world who incarcerates children [because] of their immigration status,” González said. “At this moment in history, there are kids who could be with families. What we heard today was that the only thing that was stopping these kids from being with their sponsors or with their families [in the United States] was the federal government’s lack of movement regarding background checks. All the kids had a place to go.”
The lawmakers said there are more than 170 undocumented minors at the facility, including 103 from Guatemala, 55 from Honduras, 20 from El Salvador and four from Mexico.
González and Rodriguez said that because the Tornillo facility is on federal land, there is little lawmakers can do in terms of oversight and regulation. They said that policy could create an incentive for the federal government to construct similar detention centers elsewhere and shut out local or state lawmakers who oppose the administration’s continued crackdown on undocumented immigrants who are seeking asylum in this country.
“I think as members of the Texas Legislature, we want to try to get more oversight of these types of facilities, but when they are on federal land it becomes very challenging” Rodriguez said. “So what I am going to be looking at … is what Congress does in terms of putting more of these on federal land so they take away [oversight] from the state government. If that happens, we’ll have tent cities everywhere.”
The federal government said Thursday morning that it has reunited 57 immigrant children under the age of 5 who had been separated from their parents after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. In doing so, the government declared its efforts to reunite “eligible children” in that age group complete.
Those 57 children represent more than half of 103 “tender age” juveniles who had been identified as separated from their parents in a court case the American Civil Liberties Union filed against the government. The California judge in the case had ordered those children reunited by Tuesday. The rest of the children have been deemed ineligible for immediate reunification.
More than 2,000 children over the age of 5 remain separated from their parents. The court has set a July 26 deadline for those children to be reunified.
Of the kids under the age of 5 deemed ineligible for reunification, 12 have parents who were already deported by the U.S. government. Those parents “are being contacted,” according to a U.S. Department of Justice news release. Another 22 were found to be ineligible for reunification due to safety concerns (most often because their parents had a serious criminal record), there were worries about abuse or the adults they were supposed to be reunified with weren’t their parents. Eleven children’s parents were also in custody for other alleged criminal offenses. And in one case, the government has lost track of a child’s parent for more than a year.
In a joint statement, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions acknowledged that a “tremendous amount of hard work and obstacles” remain in the reunification process.
“The Trump administration does not approach this mission lightly, and we intend to continue our good faith efforts to reunify families,” they said.
But in a statement, the ACLU noted that the unifications were completed two days beyond the original deadline.
“If in fact 57 children have been reunited because of the lawsuit, we could not be more happy for those families,” said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project. “But make no mistake about it: the government missed the deadline even for these 57 children. Accordingly, by the end of the day we will decide what remedies to recommend to the court for the non-compliance.”
Most families had been divided as part of the Trump administration’s now-reversed practice of separating those who crossed the border illegally — though some had also been separated before the policy became official, and some had been separated after seeking asylum legally at official ports of entry into the United States.
This week, families who have been reunified have been released from federal custody, given ankle monitors and ordered to appear back in court for their immigration proceedings. But government lawyers have indicated to the court that they might not continue that practice for long. In the future, the government has indicated, officials might give the parents a choice: Agree to be detained with their child — and give up that child’s right to be released after 20 days — or release their child to the custody of the federal government.
In their update on the reunification efforts, the three cabinet secretaries defended the Trump administration’s handling of the family separations.
“The American people gave this administration a mandate to end the lawlessness at the border, and President Trump is keeping his promise to do exactly that. Our message has been clear all along: Do not risk your own life or the life of your child by attempting to enter the United States illegally. Apply lawfully and wait your turn,” they said in their joint statement.
“The American immigration system is the most generous in the world, but we are a nation of laws and we intend to continue enforcing those laws,” they said.
The Texas Tribune July 5, 2018NewsComments Off on Federal Officials Cite “Zero Tolerance” After Border Apprehensions Dip Nearly 20% in June
The number of people who were apprehended or turned themselves in to Border Patrol agents near the U.S.-Mexico border last month dipped nearly 20 percent when compared to May, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced Thursday.
The total number of apprehensions on the southwest border was 34,114 last month, down from 40,338 in May. That figure, which includes people who were apprehended between the ports of entry, also shows a slight decrease in the number of unaccompanied minors and family units that were caught.
The decrease comes amid a firestorm over President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy that led to the separation of thousands of immigrant children from their families. Trump’s policy directed that anyone who crossed the border between a port of entry be criminally charged. Since parents and kids can’t be kept in jail together, thousands of families were split up. Trump has since signed an executive order designed to end family separations, though many families have not yet been reunited.
In a statement, Department of Homeland Security spokesperson Tyler Q. Houlton touted the “zero tolerance” and said the government would continue to enforce current immigration laws while Congress debates a change to the current system.
“As we have said before, the journey north is dangerous and puts individuals in the hands of smugglers and traffickers,” Houlton said. “We continue to call on Congress to address the crisis at the border by closing legal loopholes that drive illegal immigration.”
The number of family units caught on the southern border dipped only slightly during the same time frame; from 9,485 to 9,449, while the number of unaccompanied children fell from to 6,388 to 5,115. The Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector in Texas remained the busiest in the country last month, with about 14,700 apprehensions occurring there last month. That figure includes 5,420 family units and 2,576 unaccompanied minors. The second busiest was Tucson with 4,146 total apprehensions. That was followed by the El Paso sector (which includes New Mexico) which registered 3,572 total apprehensions, including 1,604 family units and 839 unaccompanied minors.
Though the DHS statement said the decline last month came after the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, figures provided by DHS show that traffic has generally declined in the summer months over the last few years. Since the 2013 federal fiscal year, only 2017 saw an increase in traffic from May to June.
And despite the drop in apprehensions over the last two months, government data shows that during the current fiscal year, from October to June, overall apprehensions of family units and unaccompanied minors increased when compared to the same time frame in during the 2017 fiscal year. From October 2016 to June 2017 about 33,000 unaccompanied minors and 63,400 family units were caught. From October 2017 thought last month, those figures were 37,450 and 68,650, respectively.
On Monday afternoon at a migrant shelter in this border city, Mario, an undocumented Honduran immigrant who was separated from his daughter, struggled to tell reporters how all he wanted to do was wish her happy birthday and ask for her forgiveness.
On Thursday, he said he’s had the chance to do both after finally learning his 10-year-old daughter’s location: She’s somewhere in El Paso, he said, and she’s safe.
“I said, ‘Please forgive me for letting them separate us,’” he said. “But she’s a smart girl, and she understood that the most important thing is that we’re going to be able to be together.”
Mario was one of 32 undocumented parents who had been separated from their children after being apprehended or turning themselves in to federal border officers under a zero-tolerance policy on undocumented border crossers that’s led to more than 2,300 children being separated from their parents.
Ruben Garcia, the director of the El Paso-based Annunciation House where the migrants were received, said the group was among the first to be released after President Donald Trump reversed course and halted family separations through an executive order.
Some, like Mario, didn’t even know where their children were after arriving at the shelter.
Garcia said about a dozen parents from that group remain at the shelter, and all of them now know where their children are — although not all have been able to speak to them. Some of the other parents are trying to connect with family members in the United States who were likely named the children’s designated sponsors when the families were caught and separated.
But before he can be reunited with his daughter, Mario — who asked to be identified only by his first name to avoid the possibility of jeopardizing his asylum claim — needsthe Honduran government to fax a copy of his birth certificate to the legal representatives who are helping him while he’s at the shelter.
Garcia said the birth certificate is one of the documents that the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which has custody of the children, asks to see before approving reunifications, but those aren’t returned to the parents after they are released from federal custody.
“And so when you talk to ORR, you say, ‘ICE took my birth certificate,’ and they’ll say that ICE and ORR don’t talk to each other,” Garcia said. “It’s just a problematic system.”
A spokesperson with the ICE field office in El Paso said the agency does not keep identifying documents once an immigrant is released from its custody.
Garcia said most of the parents who were apprehended and separated will likely be reunited with their children wherever the designated sponsor is located because that’s a faster option than starting the process over to bring the parent and child together.
To locate their children, the parents have been reaching out to the designated sponsors, who then have to connect them with the ORR social worker in charge of the child’s case.
“They call the [sponsor] and he or she gives the parent the name and phone number of the social worker,” Garcia said. “That doesn’t tell me where my kid is, that just tells me who the social worker is. I call the social worker, and that’s when I find out my kid is in Chicago or New York or wherever.”
As the White House faces court orders to reunite families separated at the border, immigrant children as young as 3 are being ordered into court for their own deportation proceedings, according to attorneys in Texas, California and Washington, D.C.
Requiring unaccompanied minors to go through deportation alone is not a new practice. But in the wake of the Trump administration’s controversial family separation policy, more young children — including toddlers — are being affected than in the past.
The 2,000-plus children will likely need to deal with court proceedings even as they grapple with the ongoing trauma of being taken from their parents.
“We were representing a 3-year-old in court recently who had been separated from the parents. And the child — in the middle of the hearing — started climbing up on the table,” said Lindsay Toczylowski, executive director of Immigrant Defenders Law Center in Los Angeles. “It really highlighted the absurdity of what we’re doing with these kids.”
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which oversees the deportations of unauthorized immigrants, did not respond to a request for comment.
Toczylowski said parents typically have been tried along with young children and have explained the often-violent circumstances that led them to seek asylum in the U.S.
The children being detained under the new “zero tolerance” policy, though, are facing immigration proceedings without mom or dad by their side.
“The parent might be the only one who knows why they fled from the home country, and the child is in a disadvantageous position to defend themselves,” Toczylowski said.
Meanwhile, the broader legal situation is in flux. A federal judge Tuesday night commanded the White House to reunify families within 14 days if the child is under 5 and 30 days if the child is older. The Justice Department has not indicated whether it will appeal. Attorneys who are involved in the cases said it’s unclear how the judge’s order will work in practice, and when and how it could take effect.
“We don’t know how the judge’s order is going to play out with reunification of children. What if parents have already been deported?” said Cynthia Milian, a Texas-based attorney at the Powers Law Group.
In the interim, she added, the implications for kids remain an urgent concern.
Given the trauma the children faced in their home country that spurred their families to flee and the pain of being separated from a parent, the expectation that children can mount a legal defense is “unconscionable,” said Dr. Benard Dreyer, director of the division of developmental-behavioral pediatrics at New York University School of Medicine.
“It’s certainly grossly inappropriate,” said Dreyer, who is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics advocacy committee. “I’m ashamed that we’re doing this.”
Leaders at three legal services organizations and a private firm confirmed that the children are being served with notices to appear in court. They are not entitled to an attorney but rather are given a list of legal services organizations that might help them.
Steve Lee, a UCLA child psychology professor, said expecting the children to advocate for themselves in court is an “incredibly misaligned expectation.”
“That couldn’t be any less developmentally appropriate,” he said, adding that some children may not be mature enough to verbalize a response.
More than 2,000 children who were separated from their parents at the border have been dispatched to the far corners of the nation to care facilities and foster homes.
Officials with the Department of Health and Human Services emphasized Tuesday that the agency is working to unify children with either a parent or a sponsor. But it did not provide a timeline for how long that would take.
“We are working across agencies for reunification of each child with [a] parent or family as soon as that is practical,” Jonathan White, HHS’ assistant secretary for preparedness and response, said in a media call.
HHS representatives said children in facilities run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement receive adequate care, including medical and mental health services, and at least two phone calls per week with family.
Yet children who are just arriving at care facilities are still not connected with their families, said Megan McKenna, a spokeswoman for Kids in Need of Defense. She said the children arrive at care facilities without a parent’s tracking number, and parents don’t tend to have their kids’ numbers.
After kids arrive in care facilities, HHS officials work on finding a “sponsor” to care for the child, such as a parent, guardian, family member or family friend. Historically, unaccompanied minors — who tended to be teens — found a sponsor in about a month and a half.
However, Rachel Prandini, a staff attorney with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, said finding a sponsor is more difficult now given recent fears that stepping forward to accept a child could trigger a sponsor’s deportation.
In April, HHS entered into an agreement with law enforcement officials that requires sponsors and adult family members to submit fingerprints and be subject to a thorough immigration and criminal background check.
HHS officials said the process is meant to protect the child.
Immigration lawyers from around the country have been flying into Texas to help represent children and families, said George Tzamaras, a spokesman for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
It’s impossible to know how many children have begun deportation proceedings, Tzamaras said. “There have been reports of kids younger than 3 years old and others as old as 17.”
Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges and a jurist in Los Angeles, said that unaccompanied minor cases are heard on a special docket there. She said the judges who take the cases were trained during the last administration on children’s developmental stages, impulse control and making sure the proceedings are understandable to children.
She said in a statement that the court’s work is vital: “This is not traffic court. A mistake on an asylum case can result in jail, torture or a death sentence,” Tabaddor said. “We are a nation of laws. We value fairness, justice and transparency.”
She said children seeking asylum tend to make their case in a non-adversarial office setting with a hearing officer.
But that isn’t always the case, Prandini said. Lawyers might choose a strategy that requires more time in the courtroom.
“It’s difficult for adults at times. They go to court and they get nervous before a judge,” Milian said. “Now can you imagine a child having to go before a judge and just explain to them why they’re having to flee their country?”
Toczylowski said her organization is trying to help reunify the families so the children can be tried alongside the parents.
“The kids don’t understand the intricacies that are involved with deportation and immigration court,” she said. “They do understand that they have been separated from their parents, and the primary goal is to get back with people they love.”
Authors: CHRISTINA JEWETT AND SHEFALI LUTHRA, KAISER HEALTH NEWS
The Texas Tribune June 26, 2018NewsComments Off on Feds Remain Mum on Whether There is Plan to Reunify Parents, Children Seeking Asylum
HARLINGEN — While federal officials say they have a process in place for reunifying the thousands of undocumented immigrant parents and their children whose separations set off a humanitarian crisis along the Texas-Mexico border, it is unclear how or if they plan to reunite families seeking asylum.
A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement statement released Tuesday provided some details about plans for reuniting families so they “can be returned to their home countries together.” Neither that statement — nor an earlier one released Saturday — explicitly addressed the reunification process for children whose parents fled violence in their home countries to seek asylum in the United States.
ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok did not respond to The Texas Tribune on Tuesday when asked if such a plan is in place for asylum seekers. Rusnok also declined to answer how many people currently separated from their children are seeking asylum, pointing a reporter insteadto statements about reunifying deportees.
“We’re concerned about that, so hopefully the government will provide specific answers to those questions,” said Natalia Cornelio, a director with the Texas Civil Rights Project, an advocacy group that has interviewed hundreds of undocumented immigrants separated from their children during President Trump’s recent “zero tolerance” immigration policy.
Those separations set off a bipartisan backlash that eventually prompted Trump to repeal the policy last week through an executive order. The move did little to quell confusion and tension along the border. And it has been days since federal officials updated the number of reunifications that have happened.
It is not illegal to come to a United States port of entryand ask for asylum. Once they make that request, asylum seekers are allowed to stay in the U.S. while their requests weave through a process that can take anywhere from days to years.
But U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ruled earlier this month that people fleeing gang or domestic violence alone no longer qualify for asylum. And U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents recently began waiting on international bridges on the Texas-Mexico border and deterring would-be asylum seekers from crossing the border by telling them there is no room for them to be processed on the U.S. side.
“When our ports of entry reach capacity, when their ability to manage all of their missions — counter-narcotics, national security, facilitation of lawful trade — is challenged by the time and the space to process people that are arriving without documents, from time to time we have to manage the queues and address that processing based on that capacity,” said Roger Maier, a Customs and Border Protection spokesman.
It’s unclear how many people apprehended during the “zero tolerance” policy — which has led to more than 2,500 children being separated from parents or guardians — have crossed into the country illegally because they were blocked at a port of entry.
ICE designated the Port Isabel Service Processing Center in Los Fresnos as the central location for reuniting and detaining families, but said in a statement Tuesday that no children would be housed there because it was only for those “going through the removal process.”
A group of mothers detained at the Port Isabel facility told lawmakers they had yet to receive court dates for immigration hearings — and in the meantime, they remain in a state of limbo, unsure of where their children being held are and unable to find out.
U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, a Connecticut Democrat, said there is a “clear disconnect” between official messages promising family reunification coming out of Washington and the confusion she and other lawmakers witnessed at Port Isabel.
Meanwhile, parents who have been released from federal custody say they still don’t know how or when they will be reunited with their children. The Texas Tribune reported this week that some asylum seekers separated from their children were told they would be reunited only if they agreed to be voluntarily deported.
Austin immigration attorney Kim Lincoln-Goldfinch, who is representing a woman who fled violence in Guatemala with her 5-year-old child, said the woman was turned away at a border crossing, entered the country illegally without getting caught and immediately sought out a federal agent so she could ask for asylum.
“Although she crossed the river, she wasn’t looking to abscond,” Lincoln-Goldfinch said.
Instead of being detained so her request could be processed, the client was arrested and separated from her child, Lincoln-Goldfinch said. Her client remains in a detention facility in Hutto, northeast of Austin, while her child has been released to a relative.
“That is a new horror on a new level that I have never experienced before as an immigration attorney,” Lincoln-Goldfinch said.
Federal agents earlier this week stood on a bridge connecting Matamoros, Mexico, to a border station in Brownsville and refused to let asylum seekers through. A group of men from Cuba sat on the bridge, where they had been waiting days to make asylum claims.
A few feet away, Walter and Helen Vindel had just arrived with their four children. They left their home country of Honduras in January and slowly made their way through Mexico, stopping in small villages for days at a time to work odd jobs and save enough money for another leg of the trip.
The Vindels left home after they could no longer pay gang members, who had already killed some of their relatives, the “taxes” the violent groups charge for allegedly protecting families.
Vindel cried as she said the family just wants Americans to show compassion and understand they are not like the criminals they are fleeing.
“All we want is what’s best for our children,” she said. “We want them to have a future.”
When told of the chaotic immigration situation just a few yards away in America, they said they would remain on the bridge until border protection agents let them through. They said they would not cross illegally.
“In my mind, this is my only chance,” Walter Vindel.
Julian Aguilar and Claire Parker contributed to this report.
The Texas Tribune June 25, 2018NewsComments Off on Operator of Migrant Facility in Tornillo says it Might Not Stay Open Past July 13 When Contract Expires
TORNILLO — The tent city erected at this port of entry near El Paso was quickly built and opened less than two weeks ago to house undocumented immigrant children. On Monday, its operator said it may not keep operating after July 13, when its federal contract expires.
The incident commander for BCFS Health and Human Services, which operates the facility, said he doesn’t yet see a need to extend operations beyond that date because he doesn’t the arrival of many more minors.But a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services told reporters during a tour of the facility that the government could ask to extend the contract — and even expand the facility if needed.
“The federal government will make a decision [later] about future needs,” said HHS spokesman Mark Weber.
HHS and BCFS officials gave about two dozen reporters a tour of the controversial facility, although they did not allow photography or audio recordings and interactions with the children were limited to greetings.
As of Monday morning, the facility housed 326 minors including 162 from Guatemala, 117 from Honduras, 40 from El Salvador, three from Mexico and four from countries simply classified as “other.” About two dozen children who were separated from their families at the border have arrived at the facility, and officials said three of those children have so far have been reunified with family members. Another 67 of the unaccompanied minors who arrived alone have been reunited since arriving at the facility.
Reporters were given a briefing on the facility’s operations inside a mobile command unit, where about 12 BCFS staffers monitored the facility through cameras and computer screens, kept a daily track of visitors and updated a daily tally of the facility’s population. The BCFS incident commander, who asked not to be identified by name, said security was essential due to the number of elected officials and media who had descended on the facility.
The rest of the sprawling facility, constructed in just three days, consisted of about 20 tents that act as dormitories. Each unit, with names like Alpha 10, has 10 bunk beds equipped to handle 20 minors at a time. Drawings and pages from coloring books could be seen tacked to some of the walls, many containing Bible verses, and a daily schedule dictating everything from laundry to lunch was taped to a table at the dorm entrances.
When one group is waiting in line to use the showers, another is taking its turn at the phone stations. And before it gets too hot, some of the minors are allowed to play soccer on a makeshift field that sits just south of the dormitories. Every unit is air conditioned and Weber said there have been no complaints about the heat.
The BCFS official said the operation is staffed by about 250 people, including translators, medical staff and counselors that help the children make calls to family members. He said it resembles a boot camp because it’s the easiest way to keep order.
He had scathing words for the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” mandate that resulted in the separation of thousands of minor children from their parents after they were apprehended or surrendered themselves at the border.
“It was an incredibly dumb, stupid decision,” he said, adding several times he hopes to never again conduct an operation like this one.
Meanwhile, Weber pushed back against claims that HHS and the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s process to reunite parents with their children has been chaotic so far. Several legal aid providers have criticized the process, saying it consists of little more than a 1-800 number that parents of other advocates can call to get information on where their children are.
“We know where the parents are, we are working as fast as we can” to get them in touch with their children, Weber said.
He said a some anecdotal stories about parents unable to locate their children isn’t the reality for most families. He said the process also includes verifying that a person is authorized to accept the child, and that takes time.
“We need to verify documentation [because] we don’t want to release a child too soon. It takes time.”
The Texas Tribune June 24, 2018NewsComments Off on Confusion, Tension Roil Texas-Mexico Border as Federal Government Attempts to Reunify Immigrant Families
BROWNSVILLE — President Trump suggested Sunday the United States should block people fleeing violently volatile countries from seeking asylum here and deport any non-citizen trying to cross the border without due process.
“We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country,” Trump tweeted. “When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came. Our system is a mockery to good immigration policy and Law and Order.”
His statements, made in a series of tweets, drew immediate rebukes. They came days after his administration hastily cobbled together a reversal of a recent policythat has left thousands of undocumented immigrant children detained in federal facilities separately from their parents.
And despite federal authorities’ assertions late Saturday that there are plans to reunify many of the 2,053 separated children with relatives, confusion and tension continued mounting along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“We cannot simply take them at their word, especially when we are getting conflicting messages,” said Efrén C. Olivares, a racial and economic justice director for the Texas Civil Rights Project in McAllen.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection said that 522 separated children have already been reunited, though it was unclear whether they were returned to their parents or another relative or adult. More than 2,053 separated children remain in federal custody, and federal officials said 16 children were expected to be reunited with their parents by Sunday evening.
A downtown El Paso shelter named Annunciation House, which has taken in immigrants for decades, was preparing Sunday for what shelter Director Ruben Garcia said was likely one ofthe first groups of parents to be released by Customs and Border Protection after having their charges for illegal entry dismissed since the recent zero-tolerance policy began.
But after they are processed and given an orientation by the center’s legal coordinator, the daunting challenge of locating their kids begins.
“We do not know exactly the people who are coming to us, we do not know where their children are, so none of us can answer that question for you,” Taylor Levy, the shelter’s legal coordinator told reporters during a Sunday afternoon press conference. “No one really knows where their children are – except for the government. [It] somehow knows.”
Some of those parents who crossed the border in the El Paso sector have since been transferred to federal detention centers other parts of the nation while their children have remained on the border.
“I received a call, for example, from an attorney in Denver [Saturday],” Levy said. “She’s been representing a woman who’s now been detained for over two months. She spoke to her 5-year old son for the first time yesterday and that 5-year-old son is being housed somewhere in El Paso.”
She said immigrants are given a government phone number to call, and “you wait on hold … and then they take information from you and that’s about it. That is the same information if you are calling and you are a lawyer, if you are calling and you are a social worker, if you are calling and trying to advocate on behalf of these families.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement this weekend designated the Port Isabel Service Processing Center as the primary place for
detained families, many of whom fled Central American countries mired in gang violence, to be reunited and returned to the countries from which they came.
Journalists were not allowed inside the Port Isabel center Sunday afternoon.
Federal officials said in a statement released late Saturday that when undocumented children are detained and sent to the Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement, information about their parents or guardians is provided by Homeland Security “to the extent possible.” Authorities also said they are working across federal agencies to “foster communications” to reunite separated family members through a “well-established” process.
But in McAllen, Olivares said the Civil Rights Project has interviewed more than 375 immigrant families, and “Everyone we have interviewed has not been told any of that information.”
Also on Sunday, CNN reported that a teenage boy ran away from Southwest Key Program’s Casa Padre shelter, a converted Walmart in Brownsville that houses more than 1,400 migrant children. An investigation by The Texas Tribune found that inspectors in recent years identified hundreds of violations at nonprofit Southwest Key’s 16 Texas facilities, including 13 at Casa Padre.
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., visited a McAllen immigration center on Sunday and told reporters afterward that children 12 and older were not being kept with their parents. She said people were sleeping on concrete floors and in cages.
“There’s just no other way to describe it,” she said.
Warren, a frequent foe of Trump’s, said that she spoke with some of the detainees with the help of an interpreter. She said that one Central American told her that after she gave a police officer a drink of water in her home country, gangs assumed she was helping law enforcement.
“So she sold everything she has and she and her 4-year-old son fled the country,” Warren said. “She believes she would not survive if she went back.”
Meanwhile, the president’s social media comments Sunday drew the ire of of civil rights groups, who plan a protest in Brownsville later this week.
“What President Trump has suggested here is both illegal and unconstitutional,” said Omar Jadwat, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project. “Any official who has sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution and laws should disavow it unequivocally.”
In his tweets, Trump suggested the unfolding crisis is the fault of Democrats and said the country’s immigration policy is the laughingstock of the world and unfair to “people who have gone through the system legally.” He said his administration is doing better than his two predecessors, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican George W. Bush.
“Immigration must be based on merit — we need people who will help to Make America Great Again!” Trump wrote in a nod to his successful 2016 campaign slogan.
Freelance journalists Ivan Pierre Aguirre, Rey Leal and Andres Torres and Texas Tribune editor Matthew Watkins contributed to this report.
The Texas Tribune June 23, 2018NewsComments Off on Arguments, Confusion, Second-Guessing: Inside Trump’s Reversal on Separating Migrant Families
The White House’s hastily crafted executive order to end child separations spurred confusion and fights within the federal government, and second-guessing from the president who had demanded the order in the first place.
Amid continuing fallout from the Trump administration’s family separation policy, and a disjointed retreat earlier this week, senior officials met Friday to craft a plan for reuniting immigrant children with their parents or guardians, though it remained unclear how long that work will take.
The midday meeting was designed for officials to hash out exactly how they would reunite the more than 2,500 migrant children who have been separated from their parents since the practice went into effect in early May, according to officials involved in the discussions, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer candid insights into internal deliberations. Roughly 500 children have already been reunited with a parent or guardian, officials have said.
The Friday meeting capped a tumultuous week in which administration officials rushed through an executive order that relieved the political pressure on President Trump but intensified friction between the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security.
By Wednesday morning, the president had become convinced that he needed a way to calm the criticism, according to people familiar with the discussions, and he felt confident that Republicans in Congress would push through immigration legislation ending the family separation practice — so he might as well get ahead of it. A vote on the measure was eventually postponed until next week, but it does not appear to have enough votes to pass.
In private conversations with aides, Trump said he wanted to sign a full immigration bill as part of an executive order, which one administration official described as “a pretty insane idea.” The president was told by government lawyers that he could not change immigration law by fiat, said a person familiar with the discussions.
Trump then demanded that an executive order be written that would end child detentions in cages, and said he wanted it on his desk for signing by that afternoon, according to people involved in the discussions.
Given hours to produce a complex legal document, government lawyers crafted one that met the moment’s political demands but only added to confusion within the agencies tasked with implementing it.
The order has quieted much, but not all, of the public anger over the family separation issue. On Friday outside the Justice Department, about 100 protesters gathered in the rain chanting “Keep Families Together!”
Even that admonition, with which the administration now agrees, has provoked fights inside the government.
Thursday, the first day of enforcing the order, was marked by confusion.
That interpretation was relayed to CBP personnel along the southern border, and dozens of people who had been apprehended and sent to federal court for processing were suddenly removed from courthouses without criminal charges being filed against them.
Within the Justice Department, which prosecutes such cases, officials believed the executive order paved the way for parents to be held with their children for as long as necessary to resolve their cases, these people said.
White House officials gave little guidance in the early hours of the order, with Trump and his coterie of senior aides in Minnesota for a rally.
After CBP officials said there would be no referrals to the Justice Department of adults with children caught crossing the border, Justice Department officials became irate because that was not how they understood the policy, according to people familiar with the matter.
In many ways, the confusion echoed one of the administration’s most chaotic moments — when Trump signed an executive order in early 2017 banning visitors from majority Muslimcountries, leading to mass protests outside U.S. airports and much confusion for travelers.
In both instances, CBP personnel were left scrambling to quickly interpret and implement how the president’s command would be applied on the ground, with contradictory instructions and public statements in the immediate aftermath coming from multiple federal agencies.
On Thursday evening, officials from Homeland Security and the Justice Department gathered at the White House to discuss the issues, and over the course of the 90-minute meeting it became clear that CBP and Justice had wildly different understandings of what they were supposed to be doing, according to people familiar with the talks.
Senior White House adviser Stephen Miller, an outspoken proponent of tougher immigration policy, was unhappy that CBP had decided to halt referrals for prosecution of parents illegally crossing the border with children, according to people familiar with the meeting. Homeland Security officials complained they had been given no guidance and had done the best they could with vague language.
Trump, for his part, has ruminated to aides that he should not have signed the order in the first place, according to people familiar with the conversations. The president seemed to be fed up with the topic Friday, as he publicly discouraged Republican lawmakers from trying to pass any new immigration laws before the midterm elections in November.
“Republicans should stop wasting their time on Immigration until after we elect more Senators and Congressmen/women in November,” Trump tweeted. “Dems are just playing games, have no intention of doing anything to solves this decades old problem. We can pass great legislation after the Red Wave!”
In the meantime, federal agencies continue to wrestle with how to deal with those families that have been detained or are likely to be detained soon.
A significant challenge for Homeland Security, in particular, is that its detention facilities are already near maximum capacity, according to officials.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) currently has three “family residential centers” where migrant families can remain in custody together, but their combined capacity is only about 3,000 beds. According to the latest ICE statistics, the three facilities are nearly full.
On Friday, ICE requested information from government contractors about expanding its family detention capacity fivefold, “to accommodate up to 15,000 beds.” Its notice said the agency is seeking market information about the cost and logistics of adding new family-appropriate facilities, preferably in states along the Mexico border.
“The housing and other structures must appear residential and child-friendly rather than penal in nature,” the notice stated. “Facilities should not incorporate characteristics on the interior or exterior typically associated with secure detention facilities, such as high security fences, razor wire fencing, or heavy steel doors.”
Trump’s order also calls on the Defense Department to find space for migrant families, leaving military officials crafting plans on the fly to set up tent camps on bases with available land.
Pentagon officials on Friday said the department was drawing up plans for housing migrants. The officials stressed that the plans were not finalized and had been drafted in case they were needed.
“At this time there has been no request from DHS for DOD support to house illegal migrants,” Lt. Col. Jamie Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said in an email.
One draft memo prepared for the secretary of the Navy called for “temporary and austere” detention camps for up to 25,000 migrants on abandoned airfields in Alabama, according to Time, which obtained a copy of the document.
The proposal also identifies a former naval weapons station near San Francisco and another facility at Camp Pendleton in southern California, each of which could house up to 47,000 people, Time reported.
White House officials were publicly silent on the executive order Friday, not taking questions as senior government officials huddled behind the scenes. Trump appeared with families of people killed by illegal immigrants and said the media should instead focus on those separations, which he called “permanent.”
WESLACO — After touring shelters that house some of the thousands of migrant children separated from their parents under President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, Republican U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn of Texas reaffirmed their commitment to keeping kids with their parents after they cross the border — so long as future immigration policy better deters people from entering the country illegally.
“Kids are better off with their moms and dads,” Cruz said Friday during a roundtable discussion at a South Texas Border Patrol station, an event that also featured Cornyn. “I hope we see Democrats and Republicans willing to work together to ensure that … but also to ensure … that we’re respecting the rule of law.”
At the same time, Cruz and Manuel Padilla, chief of the Rio Grande Valley sector of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, sought to make the case that housing migrant children in overcrowded shelters without their parents is nothing new and spanned previous presidential administrations. They said the problem really came to a head in 2014, when more than 51,000 children — mostly from Central America — crossed into the U.S. by themselves.
In a wide-ranging discussion that included more than two dozen mayors, county judges, state lawmakers, federal officials and nonprofit leaders — and just two women — Cornyn said he would like to instruct the nation’s immigration courts to prioritize cases where families crossed the border with children. Cruz said the legislation he introduced in Congress last week is the best way forward. That legislation, which he acknowledged may not have enough support to advance, would require the federal government to keep immigrant families together once they cross the border “absent aggravated criminal conduct or threat of harm to the children.”
Cruz filed his legislation just days after seemingly defending the “zero tolerance” policy, telling KERA in Dallas that “when you see reporters, when you see Democrats saying, ‘Don’t separate kids from their parents,’ what they’re really saying is, ‘Don’t arrest illegal aliens.'”
At Friday’s roundtable, no one seemed to have any answers about how families that have already been separated will be reunited.
An official from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said that kids in shelters could be transported back to their parents’ location in just days — depending on where that is. But it’s unclear how good the record-keeping is that links detained parents to separated kids. And Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley and a fierce advocate for ending the policy of family separation, said she’d heard reports of Honduran families waiting as long as four months to be reunited.
Asked to reconcile those conflicting time periods, federal officials said it depends. Sometimes a child raises questions about parental abuse. Other times, it can take days or weeks to make sure that “mom is really mom,” said Jose Gonzalez, a field supervisor with the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the federal agency tasked with looking after the kids. For kids who are too young to talk or identify their own parents, the agency sometimes uses DNA testing, which takes 7 to 10 days. “It may take up to four months to get them together,” Gonzalez said. (Asked about that four-month statistic later on by reporters, Cornyn insisted, “that’s not true.”)
When Cruz asked Ryan Patrick, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District and the son of Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, how many of the immigrants his office has prosecuted for illegal entry crossed with children, Patrick replied, “We actually don’t know.”
Both Cruz and Cornyn said they were heartbroken after touring shelters for children in the Rio Grande Valley, one of which was run by Southwest Key Programs, a Texas-based company that houses nearly half the undocumented kids in federal custody. Despite an investigation by The Texas Tribune and Reveal into hundreds of state violations at some of Southwest Key’s facilities, Cornyn said he believes the company is “doing a very good job.” He described watching the company’s employees take care of weeks-old babies, delivering what he saw to be excellent care.
“You can’t believe all the rumors that are flying around,” he said.
Cruz said little about the conditions of the shelters he toured, other than to offer that “no child should have to experience it.”
Otherwise, both he and Cornyn stuck closely to their talking points. They were encouraged and “gratified” by President Trump’s executive order ending the family separation policy; they felt that legislation would be necessary to carry it out in full force; but they also wanted to make sure that changes in federal immigration law would not encourage illegal immigration.
“If you don’t have a zero tolerance program, then you have a tolerance program,” Cornyn told reporters after the roundtable. “Meaning you tolerate illegal immigration.”