Here’s what’s known about immigrant children being separated from their families

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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. Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune

The attention of the nation has turned to Texas and its border with Mexico after the Trump administration enacted a policy that has resulted in undocumented children being separated from their parents. Here’s what we know:

What’s happening at the border?

The federal government announced an immigration policy of “zero tolerance,” which means all adults who cross the border illegally between official ports of entry will be criminally prosecuted. Since children can’t be sent to federal jail, kids who are detained with their parents are being separated from them. While their parents go through the legal system, children are handed over to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement.

A temporary facility opened Friday at the port of entry at Tornillo. The tent city will hold 360 minors and could expand, The Texas Tribune has reported.

Why is the Trump administration doing this?

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the “zero tolerance” policy in April.

“If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you,” he said the following month. “It’s that simple. … If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law.”

The policy is meant to deter immigrants from attempting to cross the border illegally. Sessions said President Donald Trump won the 2016 election in part thanks to his tough stance on immigration.

“If you want to change our laws, then pass a bill in Congress,” he said. “Persuade your fellow citizens to your point of view.”

Trump, meanwhile, is blaming Democrats.

In a tweet Monday morning, he said, “Children are being used by some of the worst criminals on earth as a means to enter our country. Has anyone been looking at the Crime taking place south of the border. It is historic, with some countries the most dangerous places in the world. Not going to happen in the U.S.”

How many children have been separated from their parents?

Official numbers say about 2,000 children have been separated from their parents at the border, but the actual number is likely higher.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said 1,995 children were separated from 1,940 adults between April 19 and May 31. Those numbers don’t include separations from June or any separations that occurred before April 19.

The Trump administration tested the “zero tolerance” policy starting in October. The New York Times reported that between October and April, more than 700 children were separated from adults claiming to be their parents. The reporting was based on data from the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

What happens to the children once they’re separated?

Unaccompanied minors and children separated from their parents are taken into custody by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Some parents have told an assistant federal public defender that their children were taken immediately at the border; others said they were separated at processing facilities.

The majority of unaccompanied, undocumented children are taken to detention centers, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The office tries to place children in foster homes or with relatives already living in the United States.

Reporters were allowed to tour a children’s facility in Brownsville where over 1,400 boys are being housed. CNN reported the boys attend school in six-hour shifts and have two hours of outdoor time a day.

Caseworkers, judges and Border Patrol officers don’t know when families will be reunited, according to The Boston Globe. Some families report being separated for over six months. The Houston Chronicle reported that the government mistakenly gave parents trying to find their children an ICE tip line phone number instead of a Department of Homeland Security phone number.

In what kind of conditions are the kids living?

Advocates worry that shelters don’t have the resources to care for children who have been separated from their parents, according to The Washington Post. Last week, federal authorities let a group of reporters into a Brownsville center that used to be a Walmart.

The number of kids staying at the shelter, which is called Casa Padre, doubled between April and May of this year. The shelter houses about 1,500 boys, who attend school for six hours a day and spend two hours outside. The boys are allowed to make two phone calls a week. Officials who run the shelter say the average stay there is 49 days.

Officials also let reporters tour a processing center in McAllen. U.S. Customs and Border Protection released video from the Central Processing Center.

Lawmakers toured the temporary shelter in Tornillo, a border city about 40 miles from El Paso, last week. After the tour, state Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, said there are doctors and caseworkers in the facility.

U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, also toured the facility, and told Texas Monthly the temporary facility seems to be safe and well run.

“They get three meals a day and snacks, it’s the same food that the staff eats,” Hurd told Texas Monthly. “There are fifty caseworkers that are working to get them placed with other family members.”

Are any girls being separated?

Photos released to media by U.S. Customs and Border Protection only show boys in detention shelters. On a call with reporters Tuesday, the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services said they are working to get photographs of girls and toddlers over the next few days, according to The Dallas Morning News.

Children caught crossing the border illegally are grouped by age and gender in detention shelters. It is unclear which shelters house girls and the media has not been allowed to photograph those sites, the newspaper reports.

How did the Obama administration handle similar cases?

The Obama administration drew criticism from immigration advocates for its 2015 policy of detaining mothers and children, but it released families from detention together.

During a surge of undocumented immigration from Central America in 2014, a federal judge ruled that families were being held in “deplorable” conditions in Texas detention centers after crossing the border, according to previous Texas Tribune reporting. U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee gave the Obama administration about two months to release women and children in centers in Dilley and Karnes City, Texas.

Homeland Security officials initially said they were detaining families to deter immigrants from illegally crossing the border, according to The New York Times. In February 2015, a federal court ruled that the children had to be released. In 2016, a judge ruled that a 20-day detention limit for children applied to families, too. Federal authorities then released many of those families and told them to return for their court dates.

How are Texas lawmakers reacting?

Many Democrats are outraged. On Father’s Day, U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat from El Paso who is running for U.S. Senate, and former El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar, who is running for Congress, led a protest at the Tornillo tent city. Six Democratic members of the Texas Legislature sent a letterto two federal agencies calling the tent cities “abhorrent and possibly illegal.”

A growing number of Republicans are speaking out against the policy.

U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, blamed the Trump administration — not Congress — for the policy.

“This is clearly something that the administration could change,” Hurd told CNN. “They don’t need legislation to change it. They don’t need Democrats in order to change it. This is a Department of Justice policy, and this is something that’s being enacted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.”

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, wrote a letter to President Trump asking him to end the “zero tolerance” policy.

Gov. Greg Abbott, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, all Republicans, echoed President Trump and blamed Democrats in Congress for the policy.

“Listen, if the Democrats would agree with him right now, they could pass a law today that would end the ripping apart of these families and make the border secure,” Abbott said on Sunday to NBC 5 in Dallas-Fort Worth.

Laura Bush, the former first lady of the U.S. and of Texas, called the “zero tolerance” policy “cruel” in an op-ed published in The Washington Post.

We asked every member of the Texas congressional delegation and other statewide officials if they support the zero tolerance policy. See how each one answered here.

What are lawmakers doing to address this policy?

On Monday, Cruz  announced plans to file emergency legislation designed to keep immigrant families together. A press release sent from his office says the legislation would double the number of federal immigration judges from roughly 375 to 750 and expedite review of asylum cases. In the meantime, temporary shelters would be authorized in order to house families together.

“We can fix this,” the statement says. “If my Democratic colleagues will join me, not play politics but work to solve the problem, we can start to end family separation this week.”

On Tuesday, Cruz confirmed a Washington Post report that he and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, are working together on a bill. But it’s unclear whether Trump would go along with what they propose. He cast doubt on elements of Cruz’s plan during a speech Tuesday.

Meanwhile, U.S. House members were working on developing their own compromise. But it was also unclear Tuesday night whether Trump would sign whatever they came up with. He planned to meet with House Republicans to discuss the issue.

Trump continues to insist, however, the Congress must act to end the crisis.

What about people who are claiming asylum?

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Monday that immigrants who go through ports of entry to claim asylum won’t be prosecuted, according to AZ Central. But over the past few weeks, asylum seekers have been turned away at ports of entry by border patrol officers, AZ Central has reported.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said at a White House briefing on Monday that Customs and Border Protection is asking people come back later due to limited resources. It’s not denying asylum, she said.

“We are not turning them away,” Nielsen said. “We are saying, ‘We want to take care of you in the right way. Right now we don’t have the resources at this particular moment in time. Come back.”

Sessions announced last week most victims of domestic or gang violence will no longer be eligible for asylum. He overruled the Board of Immigration Appeals’ 2014 ruling to award asylum to Guatemalan women trapped in abusive relationships. That ruling set precedent for asylum seekers.


by Marilyn Haigh, The Texas Tribune

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