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Families Divided

Legal aid group trying to help immigrant children detained in Tornillo find their families

At the week-old immigration detention center for minors at the Tornillo port of entry near El Paso, a legal aid group is trying to reconnect parents and children because the government's system for doing so "is a bit of a nightmarish process."

The tent city at Tornillo Port of Entry near El Paso on June 16, 2018. The facility was created to house immigrant children who were separated from their parents when they crossed the border.

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

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EL PASO — For the hundreds of unaccompanied immigrant minors detained in a hastily built tent camp in Tornillo, legal assistance and help finding family members could still be weeks away, the head of the Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services in El Paso said Friday.

The nonprofit is the only local organization that contracts with the federal government to provide legal services to undocumented immigrant minors held in federal detention. Melissa Lopez, the program's executive director, said her staff has worked with the public defender’s office for years to try to match immigrant children and parents who could be in separate states.

That job has gotten much bigger since the Trump administration launched its "zero tolerance" policy for people who cross the border illegally in April; since then, at least 2,500 children have been separated from their families.

“What we’ll do is we’ll go back and check our databases to see if that child either has been or is in El Paso,” she said. “If they’ve been here, we’ll go out and visit the child and get their permission to share their location with their parents, and I pass that information back to the public defender.”

The public defender will then work with the parents and try and reconnect the family, she said.

Because the government houses detainees wherever it can depending on available bed space, there is a chance that some minors could have been placed outside of El Paso before the facility at Tornillo was built. And that makes the situation more complicated.  

Since the "zero tolerance" policy took effect, immigrant parents trying to find their children have been directed to a central phone number that Lopez said isn't equipped to handle the recent crush.

“Short of calling every provider like ours throughout the country, the only way to get the information is through the Office of Refugee Resettlement, through their 1-800 number,” she said. “And that’s a bit of a nightmare process.”

That process, she added, requires family members to leave a message with their information and their child’s information, then wait for the federal resettlement agency to pass the message to the shelters. “And it’s incumbent on the shelter worker to reach back out to the parent," Lopez said. "And it’s kind of a big mess.”

Steve Spurgin, an El Paso-based immigration attorney whose clients include people seeking asylum, said the confusion is the expected result of President Donald Trump's "shoot-from-the-hip" style of governing.

"That's what we got going on — he creates this crazy policy and now they're not prepared for the consequences," he said. "And the nation is outraged."

At Tornillo, Lopez said the goal is to reunify children with their families when they're released from the detention center. But that can be complicated if the families are in another state.

“Many of the children won't reunify in El Paso,” she said. “They’ll end up in Houston or Dallas or in New York City, and my hope is that we can try to connect them with attorneys and representatives in those places.”

There has been confusion about whether the children inside the Tornillo shelter are unaccompanied minors who crossed the border alone or if they were separated from their parents. Lopez said she couldn’t provide details because of a confidentiality agreement, but said that the government labels the children the same way.

Lopez also cautioned against assuming the children at Tornillo will be reunited with family members, whether or not they were separated when they were caught by federal authorities.

Even though federal authorities announced Friday that 500 children have been reunified, Lopez said that's a legal term that means an unaccompanied child has been released to a family member or a family friend.

“The average person is going to read that to assume they are now back with their parents. That’s not necessarily the case," Lopez said. "I would expect that many of the parents are probably still detained." 

Lopez said her office has been flooded with calls from volunteers, a welcome development for a 37-person operation with nine attorneys and nine accredited representatives who can legally represent the children in immigration proceedings. 

But even with help from new volunteers, ramping up a legal aid program for the children in a newly opened shelter like Tornillo will take time and could stretch into next month, she said. 

“There are logistical things like establishing contact and getting access to the facility and where we’re going to provide services, and infrastructure issues,” she said. “We try and get it moving as quickly as possible, but it’s just a process, unfortunately.”

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