Families DividedMore in this series
*Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout
TORNILLO — Central American children whose parents have already been deported to their home countries are now among hundreds of unaccompanied immigrant minors detained in a tent camp in Tornillo, U.S. Reps. Beto O'Rourke and Joaquin Castro confirmed to reporters Saturday afternoon.
The two Democrats also said that at least seven young women between the ages of 13 and 17 arrived Saturday morning at the facility, which opened about a week ago and now houses almost 300 minors.
O’Rourke, Castro and U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, were allowed inside for about an hour. They said the conditions inside were humane and credited the staff with maintaining a safe environment. But the lawmakers said they were given little information about the children from federal officials — so they asked the children themselves.
“We asked, 'How long have you been in detention?' We heard one month, we heard two months, we heard up to three months,” O’Rourke, D-El Paso, said after he was briefly allowed to talk to some of the undocumented children.
O’Rourke said he was also told that some of the minors confirmed they had arrived with their parents and were separated, while others had arrived alone. The hastily built tent camp outside El Paso and along the U.S.-Mexico border is among several sites in Texas where thousands of immigrant children are being housed. A nonprofit that contracts with the federal government to provide legal services for the minors said it could be weeks before the children receive legal assistance and help finding family members.
Most of the government-provided images of the various facilities have shown very few minor girls, which has prompted lawmakers and advocates to press the government to provide details on where they are being kept. A hashtag, #wherearethegirls, has become widely used by critics of the Trump administration’s border policies.
After the tour, Castro, a San Antonio Democrat, said he was still concerned that federal officials have provided little information about where they have detained female children.
“We know that there are enough [minor females detained] to where we should be seeing more of them, and they can't give us a full accounting," he said. "And that's very disturbing."
O’Rourke said he was also left wondering about the fate of the minors in detention, especially those whose parents have been deported. He said he came away with only more questions.
“We weren’t able to get a lot of clarity on the future of these kids are how they are tracked,” he said, adding that a recent policy shift will only add to the confusion about how and when the children will be reunified with family members. The Office of Refugee Resettlement is now sharing information about immigrant families with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, he said.
“The question, though, is begged — does someone in a household with undocumented immigrants, now knowing that ICE knows that you’re there, want to lift their hand and say, ‘I’ll take that child’?” O’Rourke said.
Castro said the agencies are on record saying they’ll use the information to vet which people are in the country legally.
“We’ve been in meetings where they have said before that they are able to share that information and use it for their own purposes,” he said. “So for ICE, I have to believe that means enforcement and deportation of a sponsor that might be wanting to step forward.”
Castro said he and O’Rourke will return to Congress this week and pressure federal agencies to provide lawmakers a list of children who have been separated from their families. He said pressuring only one or two agencies won’t make a difference because each one would blame the other.
“The federal agencies in charge of this whole process need to provide Congress a complete list of each of the children with all of their information and their parents' information,” he said. “Because so far, I have seen no evidence that they have any reliable system to make sure that these [children] are going to be reunited.”