US Rep. Lawrence among Dems touring detention center
McAllen, Texas – After touring a border processing facility on Saturday, Democratic lawmakers said they weren’t convinced the Trump administration had any real plan to reunite immigrant children separated from their parents by U.S. border authorities.
The delegation of 25 members of Congress, which included U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, visited a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility in the U.S.-Mexico border city of McAllen, Texas. They described seeing children sleeping behind bars, on concrete floors and under emergency “mylar” heat-resistant blankets.
Even when parents and children aren’t separated, they are often housed in adjacent cells that keep them apart, the lawmakers said. They added they hadn’t seen a clear federal system for reuniting those who were split up, since everyone – even infants – is assigned “A’’ or alien numbers, only to be given different identification numbers by other federal agencies.
Lawrence described the visit as an emotional roller coaster.
“At border patrol, where children are first apprehended, we walked in and saw children laying on cement with aluminum blankets on top of them,” Lawrence said in a phone interview with The Detroit News. “Then the agent opened the door and all these children immediately stood up and didn’t say a word.
There was over 600 in a single detention center in giant cages with no walls and it was so quiet.” she said. “You didn’t hear laughing, children talking… it was eerie. Nothing but the sound of ruffling metallic blankets.”
She said the group also spoke with mothers in the women’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility who don’t know where their children are.
“These mothers are in constant tears saying they don’t know where their babies are, and some haven’t spoken to them in a month,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence said she’s angered by the lack of communication and representatives left without answers.
“Right now, I can’t talk about partisan issues after seeing this human rights issue,” she said. “We have more than 2,000 we are working to reunite... We have to work to fix our broken immigration system. No one from ICE, border patrol, Customs or Human Health Services could tell us their plan for reuniting these children.”
Lawmakers are also trying to reunite 58 migrant children who have been placed in Michigan. But the governor’s office says the federal government, not the state, is responsible for their placement and reunification.
Children have been placed in Muskegon, Paw Paw and the majority are at Bethany Christian Services in Grand Rapids. Lawrence, who is also on Michigan’s Foster Care Caucus, said she met with Bethany Christian Services officials on Monday about their displacement.
“Right now, we’d like to work on reuniting those families, but we need some communication from the federal government,” Lawrence said. “Imagine traveling for almost a month to get to the border, the child has been through that journey and taken away with a stranger, then placed on a plane, in a facility unaware of their surroundings, then placed in a foster home... Can you imagine a 5-year-old going through that?”
Lawrence’s remarks and those of her congressional colleagues come amid an outcry over the Trump administration’s separation of immigrant families on the border. In recent weeks, more than 2,300 children were taken from their families under a “zero-tolerance” policy in which people entering the U.S. illegally face prosecution.
After the public response, President Donald Trump on Wednesday ordered that they be brought back together. But confusion has ensued, with parents left searching for their children.
At an immigration detention facility in Port Isabel, Texas, attorney Jodi Goodwin has been trying to help reunite families. Another lawyer identified parents separated from their children at criminal court hearings in McAllen, and Goodwin then followed up with them in custody to collect information about their cases and their children.
Goodwin said she has been inundated with requests from the parents, and the list is still growing.
“Once you end up talking with one parent they tell you that there are 70 other parents in their dorm that are also separated and can I help them,” she said. “We haven’t tapped out on the number of adults that have been separated.”
Demonstrations over the separation of families are planned for the weekend, including a rally Saturday in Fort Worth, where the Texas Democratic Convention is being held, and a protest in Homestead, Florida.
Tens of thousands of immigrants traveling with their families have been caught on the U.S.-Mexico border in recent years, many fleeing gang violence in Central America. About 9,000 such family units have been caught in each of the last three months, according to U.S. border authorities.
The Trump administration announced plans in April to prosecute all immigrants caught along the southwest border with illegally entering the country. Parents were jailed and children were taken to government-contracted shelters.
Now, the administration says it will continue with prosecutions and seek to detain families together during their immigration proceedings. That move has also sparked an outcry from women’s and children’s advocates who say children don’t belong in jail.
Immigration officials have said they could seek up to 15,000 beds in family detention facilities, and the Pentagon is drawing up plans to house as many as 20,000 unaccompanied immigrant children on military bases.
The Trump administration is also seeking changes to a decades-old settlement governing the detention of immigrant children to try to be able to keep children with their parents in custody for longer periods of time.
On Saturday, lawmakers on the tour in McAllen said they believed border agents were handling the situation as well as could be expected at the facility for immigrants recently apprehended along the border.
But Rep. Barbara Lee of California called what she witnessed “shocking and outrageous” and said the visiting lawmakers saw no evidence that children are receiving counseling or mental health care to cope with the stress of being in federal custody.
“It is, for all intents and purposes, a prison,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, of California.
Detroit News Staff Writer Sarah Rahal and AP photographer David J. Phillip contributed to this report.
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