Families Divided

The Trump administration's “zero tolerance” immigration policy, which led to the separation of children from adults who crossed the border illegally, has fueled a national outcry. Sign up for our ongoing coverage. Send story ideas to tips@texastribune.org.

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TORNILLO — Even as the Trump administration’s immigration policies are shifting daily, one thing has remained the same in this small desert town: Officials remain in the dark about what’s going on in the tent city constructed last week at this port of entry.

A trip by a group of mayors to the port of entry Thursday, spearheaded by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, yielded no new information about what, if anything, will change inside the detention center for immigrant children after President Donald Trump signed an executive order to end family separations on Wednesday.

“We’ve heard nothing about that, I’ve heard nothing personally about it,” said El Paso Mayor Dee Margo. “I am hoping that given the order [Wednesday], they’ll start ending this.”

The facility was built last week just 24 hours after the federal government confirmed its location. It’s reported that more than 250 undocumented immigrant minors are currently housed there. The facility has the capability to expand its capacity to up to 4,000.

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When the shelter opened, U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, said he was told that only teenaged boys were at the facility and that they were children who had entered the country by themselves and were not separated from their families under the Trump administration's “zero tolerance” policy.

But last Sunday, U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-El Paso, said the facility held both unaccompanied and separated children and said some of the children might have been reclassified after they were processed. A Thursday news release from O'Rourke's campaign said he was scheduled to return to Tornillo on Saturday.

Margo said he’s had no information about who’s inside.

“I don’t know where those children came from, I don’t know where their parents are, we don’t know what’s going on,” Margo said. 

The office of state Rep. César Blanco, D-El Paso, said it was told Wednesday just after the event in Tornillo that the children were all classified as “unaccompanied minors.” His office added that the state’s Health and Human Services Commission has asked the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, which oversees the care for the unaccompanied minors, to determine if the facility needs a license to operate as a child care facility. That information is also unknown.

U.S. Conference of Mayors President Steve Benjamin, the mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, said the group was denied access to the facility and was instead told to submit a formal request that would take weeks to process.

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“We have been told that if we want to access, we have to submit [a request] and hopefully we’ll get approval in a couple of weeks — the same response members of Congress and several others apparently have received,” he said. “But we will continue to push for access because that is the piece of the puzzle.”

Austin Mayor Steve Adler added: “That’s hard for us [to understand] because we don’t see a collection of elected mayors from across the country as posing any kind of security or administrative risk." 

After a news conference Wednesday, some of the mayors and other local officials, including Blanco and Austin City Council member Greg Casar, sought an interview with a port supervisor. But they were told that there wasn’t an official available to even answer questions, and a Department of Homeland Security agent closed the gate to the entrance.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said Trump's Wednesday executive order ending family separations was “the right thing to do” but said it didn’t answer any questions about what happens next. It’s also still unclear how – or even if — already separated families will be reunited.

“We have over 2,000 children still far away from their parents and hundreds of them streaming into our cities, over 100 in our city,” he said. “We don’t know any information about them. We have to find out from activists instead of from the government.

“That is a core of the problem, we do not know how the administration plans to reunify these thousands of children,” Benjamin added. “I can only imagine what these parents are going through and what these children are going through. We need clarity from the administration.”

Disclosure: Dee Margo and former Texas Tribune board chairman Steve Adler have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.