TORNILLO, Texas (CN) – About 2,000 people spent Father’s Day in the tiny Texas town of Tornillo chanting and marching against the opening of the first temporary shelter for immigrant children separated from their parents under the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy.
U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, and former El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar led Sunday’s protest at the port of entry in Tornillo, about a half mile away from where large, white temporary tents have been set up in the scalding desert, yards from the border fence, to house hundreds of children who illegally crossed the border, many with their parents.
Protesters carried signs that read “children are not illegal” and “zero tolerance is torture” as they walked on the side of road in the dirt towards the port’s entrance in the dry, 90-degree heat.
The last-minute event was spurred by the Department of Health and Human Services’ confirmation last Thursday that the quiet community of just more than 1,500 people, located about 40 miles southeast of El Paso, would shelter immigrant children separated from their parents. There were more protesters than residents in Tornillo on Sunday.
O’Rourke said he started organizing the march Friday afternoon.
The Democratic congressman, who is running for a U.S. Senate seat against Republican incumbent Ted Cruz, told reporters that more than 200 teenage boys are currently housed in the tents.
A spokesperson for HHS said last week that the shelter would house 360 children, but O’Rourke said there’s a possibility that it will eventually have as many as 4,000 beds.
“This is inhumane. This is cruel. This is torture to take a child from that mother, from that father, who literally risked all, including their lives, to bring them to safety, fleeing horrific violence,” O’Rourke said.
About 20 percent of the children at the Tornillo shelter have been taken from their parents after entering the U.S., while the rest are unaccompanied minors, according to O’Rourke.
Several Democratic politicians from Texas attended the march, including gubernatorial candidate Lupe Valdez and Texas state Representatives Mary Gonzàlez, Joe Moody, César Blanco and Lina Ortega.
U.S. Representative Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass., was the only out-of-state politician to attend. Kennedy, grandson of the late Robert Kennedy, told the crowd that the U.S. should embrace immigrants who are fleeing from desperate conditions.
“We recognize that universal truth that humanity does not come with citizenship or with a green card,” Kennedy said.
U.S. Representative Will Hurd, a Republican whose district includes Tonillo, visited the shelter late Friday night. He told Texas Monthly that the tents were air-conditioned and the children had access to medical services and caseworkers, but said he was disappointed with the situation.
“If, in order to address our broken immigration system, we’re using children as a deterrent, then we have a problem,” Hurd said.
The need for additional shelter space has come in part from the federal government’s “zero tolerance” policy on illegal border crossings, which was announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in April, following a 37 percent increase in illegal border crossings in March.
Under the new policy, adults who cross the border are arrested and face misdemeanor criminal charges for first-time entry. Their children are placed in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which operates 100 shelters across the country, and are held until a relative or a sponsor can be located.
President Donald Trump has blamed Democrats for the policy of separating migrant families.
“I hate the children being taken away,” Trump told The New York Times on Friday. “The Democrats have to change their law — that’s their law.”
But it’s unclear what law Trump is referring to, as there is no law that requires parents be separated from their children at the border.
U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland, told NPR’s “Here & Now” on Monday that ending the policy is entirely in Trump’s hands.
“He’s clearly not doing anything. He wants to point fingers,” Van Hollen said.
Many Democrats and some Republicans have criticized the policy and called for it to end. Former First Lady Laura Bush wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post on Sunday condemning the practice, calling it “cruel” and “immoral.”
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen defended the administration’s policy during a speech to the National Sheriffs’ Association in New Orleans on Monday.
“We will not apologize for the job we do or for the job law enforcement does for doing the job that the American people expect us to do,” Nielsen said. “Illegal actions have and must have consequences. No more free passes, no more get out of jail free cards.”
Cruz – O’Rourke’s opponent in the November election – has defended the policy. He told reporters at the Texas Republican Convention on Saturday that migrant parents should be blamed for endangering their children.
“I don’t think we should have any children that are brought across the border illegally, many times by drug cartels and coyotes who abuse those children, and sexually assault, physically assault those children,” Cruz told the Dallas Morning News.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, nearly 2,000 children were separated from their parents between April 19 and May 31 after they were caught illegally crossing the border.
A former Walmart Supercenter in Brownsville, Texas is currently the largest shelter in the country. It houses 1,500 boys ages 11 to 17, who were caught illegally crossing the border.
During a media tour of the facility last week, the New York Times reported the 250,000-square-foot shelter has obtained a waiver from the state to expand its capacity. Cots are being added to the rows of dorm-style beds. Back parking lots are now soccer fields and volleyball courts. A former McDonald’s serves as the cafeteria.
A group of congressmen toured another 77,000-square-foot facility in McAllen, Texas – known as Ursula after the name of the street that it’s on – over the weekend. As of Sunday, the facility held more than 200 children who had crossed the border alone.
U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley, one of the congressmen on that tour, told the Nation it was unclear how the families are reunited.
“The reality is it’s very hard for the parents to know where there kids are and be able to connect with them,” said Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon.
Both the Obama and Bush administrations housed immigrants who cross the border illegally in shelters and detention facilities. But under the previous administrations, these families were kept together.
At the march in Tornillo on Sunday, El Paso resident Bonnie Lopez, a social studies teacher at Riverside High School, told Courthouse News she felt she needed to come out to speak on behalf of her students who are immigrants.
She carried a sign that said, “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
“They just want a shot at a better life,” said Lopez. ‘They’re being treated like animals. They’re being treated like criminals.”