EL PASO, Texas (CN) — Despite President Trump’s executive order to stop separating families at the border, it’s unclear where, how, or if families will be reunited with 2,300 children who have been taken away, and where they and new arrivals will be detained under the crackdown on families.
Five immigrants in El Paso on Monday told reporters at the downtown shelter Annunciation House that they are still waiting to be reunited with their children.
Ruben Garcia, longtime director of Annunciation House, told Courthouse News the people were part of a group of 32 who were released to the shelter from the county jail on Sunday after the shift in the zero tolerance policy.
The immigrants spoke in Spanish and Garcia translated their answers into English.
Miriam, a Guatemalan woman who declined to use her last name, wiped back tears as she told dozens of reporters and photographers crowded into the small, hot room that her 4-year-old son was taken from her when he was asleep.
She said agents came into her detention cell at night and asked her to dress her son, and said they could not tell her where he was going.
“I asked, ‘Where is he going to be? Is he going to be nearby here? Am I going to be able to see him?’ He said, ‘No,” Miriam said.
“I said, ‘When will I get him back? He said, ‘When you leave. We will return the child to you.’”
Miriam said she eventually was able to speak to a social worker in New York, where her son is being held. The social worker told her that her son was angry with her and didn’t want to speak to her because he thought she had abandoned him.
“I never imagined that they would take my child,” Miriam said. “That wherever or whatever they did to me that they would do it with my child.”
Cristian, from Honduras, said he tried to enter at a legal Port of Entry near El Paso with his 17-year-old daughter but was rejected by immigration agents. So he decided to cross the border without inspection, and agents separated him from his daughter. He said the experience has been traumatizing.
“I am so damaged by what has happened to me that it is hard for me to say anything,” he said.
Border Patrol agents on the border have stopped people from entering the United States to seek political asylum, and have turned many away and told them to wait, for indefinite amounts of time.
The Texas Tribune reported that last Tuesday about 15 people were waiting on the Friendship Bridge that connects Matamoros, Mexico to Brownsville, Texas. Several said they were stopped at the halfway point, before they could enter the United States to seek asylum.
Attorney General Jeff Session announced the mandatory family separation policy in April.
Under the policy, immigrants who cross the border are arrested and charged criminally. Their children are taken from them and sent to separate camps, often hundreds or thousands of miles away.
The policy has faced worldwide criticism, even from a few Republicans.
Trump said the executive order he signed last Wednesday would end the family separation policy, though children and babies would still be detained, now with their parents. But he said the zero-tolerance arrest policy remains in effect, and it contains no plans for how to reunite with their parents the more than 2,300 children who have been taken, hundreds of them toddlers.
“We’re going to keep families together but we still have to maintain toughness or our country will be overrun by people, by crime, by all of the things that we don’t stand for and that we don’t want,” Trump said last week.
The Department of Homeland Security has acknowledged that more than 2,300 children have been taken from their parents since May.
The Department of Health and Human Services said over the weekend that 522 children have been reunited with their families.
Ruben Garcia said Monday that immigration agents continue to spread disinformation to people they capture.
“Some officers said to them, ‘You can expect to see your children here at Casa Vides when you arrive.’ That’s very hurtful for them to have that expectation when that is not the case.”
Garcia said Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have acted swiftly to release the detained migrants once their charges were dropped, but that this is not the case for the Office of Refugee Resettlement, or ORR, which operates about 100 shelters across the United States, under Health and Human Services.
Garcia called the ORR process of reuniting families “utterly, totally, completely unacceptable.”
“ORR should be tripping over itself to find these parents and say, ‘We’re on a plane with your daughter,’” Garcia said. “‘We’re on a plane with your son and we will be in El Paso, Texas within 24 hours and we want you to know.’”
Many refugee and immigrants’ rights advocates and attorneys agree with Garcia, that parents have received little to no information about where their children have been taken.
But the government says it has a plan to reunify families. The Department of Homeland Security and HHS released a fact sheet Saturday night that said families would be reunited once deportation proceedings are complete, and they are working to build better databases to link parents to children.
Some parents, however, already have been deported to Central America, while their children remain detained somewhere in the United States.
How and where families and unaccompanied minors will be detained in the days and weeks to come remains unclear.
Also Monday, reporters were given a tour of the government’s temporary shelter in Tornillo, about 30 miles southeast of El Paso.
The shelter of cream-colored tents on the Mexican border has been the site of numerous protests by politicians and activists in the two weeks since HHS confirmed it as the first temporary shelter for immigrant children. It is run by a private company on a federal contract.
During the tour, the incident commander for Health and Human Services said he does not expect the shelter to stay open past July 13, when its contract expires. A representative for HHS said the final decision will be made later. The incident commander told the Texas Tribune he does not anticipate many more children arriving,
This appears to conflict with other reports on the shelter. On June 17, during a march against the zero tolerance policy, Congressman Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, said he was told the facility could eventually have 4,000 beds.
Officials told reporters that on Monday the shelter housed 326 children, nearly all from Honduras, Guatemala or El Salvador. They said 23 of the children there had been separated from their parents, and that three had been reunited with their parents.
On Monday, the Pentagon confirmed that it plans to build two tent camps at U.S. military bases: one at Fort Bliss near El Paso for families and one Goodfellow Air Base near San Angelo for unaccompanied minors. The camps will be prepared to house up to 20,000 children.
On National Public Radio, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis compared the shelters to the military’s response during other humanitarian crises.
“Whether it be refugee boat people from Vietnam, people who’ve been knocked out of their homes by a hurricane, absolutely it’s appropriate the military provide logistic support however it’s needed,” he said.