Sen. Elizabeth Warren visited the detention center where the Trump administration said separated migrant families would be reunited and deported. Warren spent two hours inside the Texas facility on Sunday night. She saw no evidence that the process was underway, she said.
While visiting the Port Isabel facility, Warren (D-Mass.) spoke with immigration officials and detained mothers. She said there were no reunifications to report.
The senator spoke with nine women, she said: “In every case, they were lied to. In every case, save one, they have not spoken with their children. And in every case, they do not know where their children are.”
“It’s clear,” Warren said. “They’re not running a reunification process here.”
Advocates interviewed outside the Port Isabel facility’s locked gates described desperate parents giving up their hopes of asylum to get their children back in their arms more quickly. They also noted that the Port Isabel facility is not set up to house minors.
Sirine Shebaya, a Washington-area civil rights lawyer who flew to South Texas, said Port Isabel, a remote, 1,200-person facility surrounded by a wind farm, a wildlife refuge and miles of empty prairie crawling with coyotes, falcons and bull snakes, “seems to be at capacity” and is “not equipped to hold children.”
A senior administration official, who declined to be identified, said officials never intended to send busloads of children to Port Isabel for a massive reunion.
Instead, the official said, they plan to reunite families on an individual basis once a parent has lost his or her deportation case. Parents may ask for their children to join them so that they can be deported together, the official said.
The Trump administration said it was taking steps to return some 2,053 “separated minors” who had been taken into custody as part of Trump’s border crackdown, after the government elected to criminally prosecute all adults caught crossing the border. The statement said 522 children had been returned as of Saturday, and another 16 were expected to be with their parents within 24 hours.
The parents — many of whom say they are seeking asylum and fleeing gang violence or domestic abuse — have typically pleaded guilty to entering the country illegally and been transferred to adult immigration jails run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to await deportation. Their children, meanwhile, are sent across the country to shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services, or placed by the federal agency in foster care.
“The United States government knows the location of all children in its custody and is working to reunite them with their families,” the government statement read. “This process is well coordinated.”
Shebaya, who worked with a team to interview parents on Friday, said, “This is the most inefficient, preposterous system that I have ever encountered.”
“We have people in there who are considering not continuing on with really strong asylum claims because they think they’ll get reunited with their kids faster if they give up their claim,” Shebaya said. “That’s just wrong.”
Eileen Blessinger, a Virginia immigration attorney, estimated that 25 percent of the roughly 100 parents she and two colleagues interviewed at Port Isabel had been able to speak to their children as of Sunday afternoon.
Some parents had special-needs children they had not heard from in weeks, including a woman who said she had not heard from her deaf and mute child. When one woman finally heard from her 7-year-old, the child said:
One father said in a telephone interview from inside Port Isabel that he hadn’t spoken to his 13-year-old daughter since they were separated almost two weeks ago. “I have no idea where she is, if she’s eating, if she’s scared,” said the 37-year-old, who asked to go by his middle name, Roel, because he faced death threats back in Honduras. “All of us parents here are so worried.”
“She is the only child I have,” he said. “I’ve cried many times in here. Many times.”
Natasha Quiroga, another attorney working inside Port Isabel, said one father who hadn’t spoken to his daughter in more than a month became so desperate he wrote her a letter, telling her to self-deport.
One mother who said she had fled threats from drug traffickers in Honduras gave Blessinger a letter to deliver to her 7-year-old boy, with whom she hadn’t spoken to since they were separated two weeks ago. The handwritten letter is addressed to “My reason of my life.”“Be strong and fight. Don’t get sad,” it says. “Your mommy loves you and they will never separate us again.”