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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WESLACO — After touring shelters that house some of the thousands of migrant children separated from their parents under President Donald Trump's "zero tolerance" policy, Republican U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn of Texas reaffirmed their commitment to keeping kids with their parents after they cross the border — so long as future immigration policy better deters people from entering the country illegally.

"Kids are better off with their moms and dads," Cruz said Friday during a roundtable discussion at a South Texas Border Patrol station, an event that also featured Cornyn. "I hope we see Democrats and Republicans willing to work together to ensure that ... but also to ensure ... that we're respecting the rule of law."

At the same time, Cruz and Manuel Padilla, chief of the Rio Grande Valley sector of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, sought to make the case that housing migrant children in overcrowded shelters without their parents is nothing new and spanned previous presidential administrations. They said the problem really came to a head in 2014, when more than 51,000 children — mostly from Central America — crossed into the U.S. by themselves.

In a wide-ranging discussion that included more than two dozen mayors, county judges, state lawmakers, federal officials and nonprofit leaders — and just two women — Cornyn said he would like to instruct the nation's immigration courts to prioritize cases where families crossed the border with children. Cruz said the legislation he introduced in Congress last week is the best way forward. That legislation, which he acknowledged may not have enough support to advance, would require the federal government to keep immigrant families together once they cross the border "absent aggravated criminal conduct or threat of harm to the children."

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Cruz filed his legislation just days after seemingly defending the "zero tolerance" policy, telling KERA in Dallas that "when you see reporters, when you see Democrats saying, 'Don't separate kids from their parents,' what they're really saying is, 'Don't arrest illegal aliens.'"

At Friday's roundtable, no one seemed to have any answers about how families that have already been separated will be reunited.

An official from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said that kids in shelters could be transported back to their parents' location in just days — depending on where that is. But it's unclear how good the record-keeping is that links detained parents to separated kids. And Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley and a fierce advocate for ending the policy of family separation, said she'd heard reports of Honduran families waiting as long as four months to be reunited.

Asked to reconcile those conflicting time periods, federal officials said it depends. Sometimes a child raises questions about parental abuse. Other times, it can take days or weeks to make sure that "mom is really mom," said Jose Gonzalez, a field supervisor with the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the federal agency tasked with looking after the kids. For kids who are too young to talk or identify their own parents, the agency sometimes uses DNA testing, which takes 7 to 10 days. "It may take up to four months to get them together," Gonzalez said. (Asked about that four-month statistic later on by reporters, Cornyn insisted, "that's not true.")

When Cruz asked Ryan Patrick, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District and the son of Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, how many of the immigrants his office has prosecuted for illegal entry crossed with children, Patrick replied, "We actually don't know."

Both Cruz and Cornyn said they were heartbroken after touring shelters for children in the Rio Grande Valley, one of which was run by Southwest Key Programs, a Texas-based company that houses nearly half the undocumented kids in federal custody. Despite an investigation by The Texas Tribune and Reveal into hundreds of state violations at some of Southwest Key's facilities, Cornyn said he believes the company is "doing a very good job." He described watching the company's employees take care of weeks-old babies, delivering what he saw to be excellent care.

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"You can't believe all the rumors that are flying around," he said.

Cruz said little about the conditions of the shelters he toured, other than to offer that "no child should have to experience it."

Otherwise, both he and Cornyn stuck closely to their talking points. They were encouraged and "gratified" by President Trump's executive order ending the family separation policy; they felt that legislation would be necessary to carry it out in full force; but they also wanted to make sure that changes in federal immigration law would not encourage illegal immigration.

"If you don't have a zero tolerance program, then you have a tolerance program," Cornyn told reporters after the roundtable. "Meaning you tolerate illegal immigration."

Disclosure: Jeff Eller, a communications adviser to Southwest Key, is a donor and former board member 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.