Confusion, tension roil Texas-Mexico border as federal government attempts to reunify immigrant families

As an El Paso shelter prepared to take in undocumented immigrants separated from their children, President Donald Trump's tweets calling for deportations without due process drew rebukes.

Immigrants arrive at the Casa Vides Annunciation House shelter after being released from U.S. CBP custody on Sunday, June 24, 2018, in El Paso. According to the director of the shelter, all the migrants released on June 24 are parents and have been separated from their children. Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune

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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BROWNSVILLE — President Donald Trump suggested Sunday that the United States should block people fleeing violently volatile countries from seeking asylum here and deport any non-citizen trying to cross the border without due process.

“We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country,” Trump tweeted. “When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came. Our system is a mockery to good immigration policy and Law and Order.”

His statements, made in a series of tweets, drew immediate rebukes. They came days after his administration hastily cobbled together a reversal of a recent policy that has left thousands of undocumented immigrant children detained in federal facilities separate from their parents.

And despite federal authorities’ assertions late Saturday that there are plans to reunify many of the 2,053 separated children with relatives, confusion and tension continued mounting along the U.S.-Mexico border.

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“We cannot simply take them at their word, especially when we are getting conflicting messages,” said Efrén C. Olivares, a racial and economic justice director for the Texas Civil Rights Project in McAllen.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection said that 522 separated children have already been reunited, though it was unclear whether they were returned to their parents or another relative or adult. 2,053 separated children remain in federal custody, and federal officials said 16 children were expected to be reunited with their parents by Sunday evening.

A downtown El Paso shelter named Annunciation House, which has taken in immigrants for decades, was preparing Sunday for what shelter director Ruben Garcia said was likely one of the first groups of parents to be released by Customs and Border Protection after having their charges for illegal entry dismissed since the recent "zero tolerance" policy began.

After those parents are processed and given an orientation by the center’s legal coordinator, the daunting challenge of locating their kids begins.

“We do not know exactly the people who are coming to us, we do not know where their children are, so none of us can answer that question for you,” Taylor Levy, the shelter’s legal coordinator, told reporters during a Sunday afternoon press conference. “No one really knows where their children are – except for the government. [It] somehow knows.”

Some of the parents who crossed the border in the El Paso sector have since been transferred to federal detention centers in other parts of the nation while their children have remained on the border.

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“I received a call, for example, from an attorney in Denver [Saturday]," Levy said. “She’s been representing a woman who’s now been detained for over two months. She spoke to her 5-year-old son for the first time yesterday and that 5-year-old son is being housed somewhere in El Paso.”

She said immigrants are given a government phone number to call, and “you wait on hold … and then they take information from you and that’s about it. That is the same information if you are calling and you are a lawyer, if you are calling and you are a social worker, if you are calling and trying to advocate on behalf of these families.”

Darla Cameron

Immigration and Customs Enforcement this weekend designated the Port Isabel Service Processing Center as the primary place for detained families, many of whom fled Central American countries mired in gang violence, to be reunited and returned to the countries from which they came.

Journalists were not allowed inside the Port Isabel center Sunday afternoon.

Federal officials said in a statement released late Saturday that when undocumented children are detained and sent to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement, information about their parents or guardians is provided by Homeland Security “to the extent possible.” Authorities also said they are working across federal agencies to “foster communications” to reunite separated family members through a “well-established” process.

But in McAllen, Olivares said the Civil Rights Project has interviewed more than 375 immigrant families, and “everyone we have interviewed has not been told any of that information.” 

Also on Sunday, CNN reported that a teenage boy ran away from Southwest Key Program’s Casa Padre shelter, a converted Walmart in Brownsville that houses more than 1,400 migrant children. An investigation by The Texas Tribune found that inspectors in recent years identified hundreds of violations at nonprofit Southwest Key’s 16 Texas facilities, including 13 at Casa Padre.

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, visited a McAllen immigration center on Sunday and told reporters afterward that children 12 and older were not being kept with their parents. She said people were sleeping on concrete floors and in cages.

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“There’s just no other way to describe it,” she said.

Warren, a frequent foe of Trump’s, said that she spoke with some of the detainees with the help of an interpreter. She said that one Central American told her that after she gave a police officer a drink of water in her home country, gangs assumed she was helping law enforcement.

“So she sold everything she has and she and her 4-year-old son fled the country,” Warren said. “She believes she would not survive if she went back.”

Meanwhile, the president’s social media comments Sunday drew the ire of civil rights groups, who are planning a protest in Brownsville later this week.

“What President Trump has suggested here is both illegal and unconstitutional,” said Omar Jadwat, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project. “Any official who has sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution and laws should disavow it unequivocally.”

The Texas Tribune's reporting on the Families Divided project is supported by the Pulitzer Center, which will also help bring discussions on this important topic to schools and universities in Texas and across the United States through its K-12 and Campus Consortium networks.

In his tweets, Trump suggested the unfolding crisis is the fault of Democrats and said the country’s immigration policy is the laughingstock of the world and unfair to “people who have gone through the system legally.” He said his administration is doing better than those of his two predecessors, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican George W. Bush.

“Immigration must be based on merit — we need people who will help to Make America Great Again!” Trump wrote in a nod to his successful 2016 campaign slogan.

Freelance journalists Ivan Pierre Aguirre, Rey Leal and Andres Torres and Texas Tribune editor Matthew Watkins contributed to this report.