McALLEN, Texas -- Protests and rallies took place Saturday decrying the separation of parents and children by U.S. border authorities, while Democratic lawmakers said they aren't convinced President Donald Trump's administration has any plan yet to reunite the families.
Hundreds of people rallied near a Homestead, Fla., facility where some of the children are being held. People also marched in San Diego carrying signs reading "Free the Kids" and "Keep Families Together."
Outside a Border Patrol facility in McAllen, Texas, protesters temporarily blocked a bus carrying children and shouted "Shame! Shame!" at border agents.
Kerry Kennedy, daughter of the late U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, joined labor activist Dolores Huerta in McAllen to announce a hunger strike to demand the government reunite families it separated.
"Reunify these families now," Kennedy told a crowd of hundreds. She called on lawmakers to "end this humanitarian crisis of their own making."
In Florida, Argentine immigrant Maria Bilbao said she joined the protest because she came to the country 17 years ago when her son was 9 years old and understands the fear of being separated from a child.
"What is happening in this country is disgusting," said Bilbao, who worked as a cleaning woman before becoming a legal resident and now works for an immigrant-rights group. "They should be letting people go to the outside so they can work and contribute to this country."
More protests are planned for next weekend in states from Connecticut to California.
Some Democratic lawmakers who toured a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility in McAllen said they hadn't seen a clear federal system for reuniting those who were split up. Everyone -- even infants -- is assigned "A" or alien numbers, only to be given different identification numbers by other federal agencies.
Lawmakers in the group of 25 described seeing children sleeping behind bars, on concrete floors and under emergency heat-reflective blankets.
"There are still thousands of children who are out there right now untethered to their parents and no coherent system to fix that," Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., told reporters after the tour.
The demonstrations came days after the Trump administration reversed course in the face of public and political outcries and told authorities to stop separating families caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
In recent weeks, more than 2,300 children were taken from their families under a "zero-tolerance" policy in which people entering the U.S. illegally face prosecution. While the family separations were ended, confusion has ensued, with parents left searching for their children.
And the administration says it will now seek to detain the families during their immigration proceedings, which also has stoked an outcry.
Immigration officials have said they could seek up to 15,000 beds in family detention facilities, and the Pentagon is drawing up plans to house on military bases as many as 20,000 unaccompanied children.
The Trump administration is seeking changes to a decades-old settlement governing the detention of children to try to be able to detain children with their parents for longer periods of time. The Justice Department has asked a federal court in California to allow children to be detained longer and in facilities that don't require state licensing while they await immigration court proceedings.
"The current situation is untenable," August Flentje, special counsel to the assistant attorney general, wrote in court filings seeking to change the court settlement. The more constrained the Homeland Security Department is in detaining families together during immigration proceedings, "the more likely it is that families will attempt illegal border crossing."
Immigrant advocates contend detention is no place for children and insist there are other alternatives to ensure they and their parents attend court hearings, such as ankle bracelets or community-based programs. The federal court ruled several years ago that children must be released as quickly as possible from family detention.
"It is definitely not a solution under any circumstances," said Manoj Govindaiah, director of family detention services at the RAICES advocacy group in Texas. "At no point should a child be incarcerated, and children need to be with their parents."
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say people are given proper care in its family detention facilities, which include playrooms, educational services and access to lawyers. The Department of Homeland Security issued a statement that says it's complying with Trump's executive order to keep families together, but called on lawmakers to enact immigration changes, saying "only Congress can fix the problem."
The settlement is seen by advocates as a way to ensure children are placed in age-appropriate facilities and for no longer than necessary. State licensing adds another layer of oversight.
"You will have children in facilities that are entirely inappropriate for children and are not meeting child-welfare standards," said Michelle Brane, director of the migrant rights and justice program at the Women's Refugee Commission. "They are trying to circumvent child-welfare standards."
TRUMP IN VEGAS
Trump, meanwhile, pressed his tough anti-illegal immigration stance before West Coast supporters Saturday. Trump was in Las Vegas to assist Dean Heller, the only Republican U.S. senator seeking re-election in a state that Democrat Hillary Clinton won in 2016.
In remarks to several hundred often-cheering attendees at the Nevada GOP Convention, Trump portrayed himself as the toughest against illegal immigration, saying at one point, "I think I got elected largely because we are strong on the border."
He excluded any mention of his reversal on the separations after public outcry, including from members of his own family.
"On immigration, we have to be very strong," Trump said, saying the immigration problem should have been solved years ago and blaming Democrats for causing it. "The fact is we need more Republicans because the Democrats are obstructionists."
Trump said Republicans are for "strong borders, no crime" and called it a winning issue for the party. He alleged that Democrats are for "open borders and MS-13 all over our country," referring to the violent street gang, adding that stance is a losing issue for the opposition.
Outside the convention, at least 300 people protesting the separations were stretched along a sidewalk outside the casino-hotel where the president met in private with supporters before addressing the convention.
Evelyn Stauffer, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said her agency is trying to help reunite families or place unaccompanied children with appropriate sponsors.
Immigration lawyers are trying to help facilitate reunions. At criminal court hearings in McAllen, one lawyer identified parents separated from their children, and immigration attorney Jodi Goodwin said she followed up with them at a detention facility in Port Isabel, Texas, to collect information about their cases and their children.
Goodwin said she has been inundated with requests from the parents, and the list is still growing.
"Once you end up talking with one parent they tell you that there are 70 other parents in their dorm that are also separated and can I help them," she said, adding that immigration authorities had asked her to share the information so they could assist. "We haven't tapped out on the number of adults that have been separated."
Some of those protesting in McAllen on Saturday said they have been working to reunify families, but it hasn't been easy. Martha Sanchez, an organizer at La Union Del Pueblo Entero, a Rio Grande Valley community organization, said the group spent three days trying to find the 8- and 9-year-old sons of a Mexican father detained in the region.
On Friday, the boys turned up in a shelter for deported children run by the Mexican government across the border in Reynosa.
Efren Olivares, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, told the crowd that of 381 parents he interviewed at the local federal court, none has been reunited with their children.
In Florida, some lawmakers were turned away Saturday when they went to assess conditions at the shelter in Homestead.
The state and local Democrats were dismayed when they were told they had to request a tour two weeks in advance.
U.S. Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Frederica Wilson, Ted Deutch and Darren Soto, along with staff members, entered the facility that houses about 1,179 children. Behind them trailed state Sens. Annette Taddeo and Jose Javier Rodriguez, state Rep. Kionne McGhee and Miami-Dade County commissioners Barbara Jordan and Danielle Levine Cava -- all of whom were told they would not be allowed access Saturday.
Gathered under a white tent under a gray, rainy afternoon sky, they told reporters they were frustrated they could not enter.
"We're here locally. This is our local community. We know the community," Jordan said. "We want to see what's going on with those children."
Mark Weber, deputy assistant secretary for public affairs for the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, told the lawmakers that his department needed more notice to accommodate their requests. He said the lawmakers could tour the facility later.
Information for this article was contributed by Will Weissert, Elliot Spagat, Manuel Valdes, David J. Phillip, Brynn Anderson, Amy Taxin, Terry Spencer, Michael Balsamo, Darlene Superville, Michelle Price and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar of The Associated Press; by Martin Vassolo and Joey Flechas of the Miami Herald; and by Molly Hennessy-Fiske of the Los Angeles Times.
A supporter of President Donald Trump and a man protesting Trump’s immigration policies argue Saturday during a march to the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Homestead, Fla.
A Section on 06/24/2018
Print Headline: Family split-ups stir protests; Democrats doubt plan in place for reunions