At a highway-side motel in Harlingen, near the border in Texas, a small meeting room has been turned into something of a war room. Volunteer lawyers and aid workers eat tacos and strategize about how to help detained immigrants.
“It’s almost triage, that’s what it feels like,” says Natasha Quiroga, who flew in from Washington, D.C. with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
This region, the Rio Grande Valley, is the nation’s busiest corridor for illegal border crossings. Nearby is the Port Isabel Service Processing Center. That has been designated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement as the primary “reunification and removal” center for parents it separated from their children.
The Trump administration has suspended prosecutions of parents with children under Zero Tolerance, the program aimed at stemming the tide of people illegally entering the country. Late Tuesday, a federal judge in San Diego, Calif., ordered the return of most children within 30 days. Children under five, the judge ruled, should be returned within 14 days. But it’s unclear how the government, which has said it needs time to vet sponsors, will implement the order.
Meanwhile, about 2,000 children remain in shelters apart from their parents. That leaves hundreds of parents in desperate straits, with some dropping their asylum claims and agreeing to self-deport in hopes of reuniting more quickly with their children.
Quiroga recently visited the facility. She says some parents gave her letters for their kids.
“I actually had to write a letter for a father, because he couldn’t write,” says says, her voice cracking. “I’m emotional — I can’t even imagine what it’s like for them.”
She says detainees, most who fled violence in Central America, don’t believe they have any good options. They can stay in detention, apart from their children, until their asylum case is heard. But that could take months. Or they could self-deport to reunify with their kids in their counties of origin.
“They were just so desperate to get back with their kids that they’re opting to go this route,” she says, “and it’s not safe for them to go back to their country … and it’s a horrible decision that they have to make.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not respond to a request to visit Port Isabel, but one detainee there painted a similar one to Quiroga’s.
Antonio, who only wanted to use his middle name because he feared hurting his asylum claim, says he doesn’t know how long he’ll stay in Port Isabel. He and his 8-year-old son were separated on May 29 after fleeing turmoil in Honduras. He hasn’t heard from his son, and says Port Isabel officials have not helped them get in touch.
“Still nothing,” he said before his calling card ran out of money and the line went dead.
Health and Human Services oversees the shelters where migrant children who were separated from their parents are being held. HHS Secretary Alex Azar testified in Congress that parents should be able to find their children. He says he could find any child “within seconds.”
But detained parents continue to tell a different story. And more families continue to arrive every day. Many in the Rio Grande Valley end up at the Catholic Charities respite center in McAllen, Texas.
On Monday, a large room there was full of about 100 newly arrived immigrants sitting on folding chairs and listening to a volunteer walk them through the process to seek asylum.
“We have volunteers taking down their information so they can call their family members in the United States and they can reconnected and talk and get their buses so they can leave sometime soon,” says Sister Norma Pimentel, who runs the center.
These parents are no longer detained or separated from their kids. They are processed and given a notice to appear in court later on. Sister Norma says it’s a lot like the way things used to be. It’s also what the Trump administration called the “catch and release” policy that it sought to end.
She says many immigrants are coming to the U.S. for the same reason:
“The stories are about the gangs in their countries how difficult and dangerous it is for especially the children that they can be recruited,” she says. “They can disappear, life in their country is not safe and they want their children to be safe.”
She says as long as that danger remains, immigrants will keep coming, no matter the risk or the policy.