Texas ‘Tent City’ Shows New U.S. Border Crisis, Senator Warns

(Bloomberg) -- Lawmakers who visited what’s been called a tent city for unaccompanied immigrant children termed conditions there livable, yet voiced concerns about what’s next for them amid confusion about the family reunification process.

“I’m very worried that we’re headed from one humanitarian crisis to another,” New Mexico Senator Tom Udall said on Saturday after touring the temporary detention facility in Tornillo, Texas, for children ages 13 to 17. The camp holds mostly boys, but seven girls arrived on Saturday and will be housed separately.

Trump administration officials including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen “should all give us a plan” about how families will be reunified, Udall said.

The lawmakers didn’t know exactly how many children were at the facility, and complained about being unable to get numbers and other specific responses. They were told, though, that 26 minors brought to Tornillo had been separated from their parents at the border, and that three of them have since been reunited with their families. 

“Our trip out here probably raised more questions than it answered,” said Pennsylvania Representative Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican. “We need to get everybody in one room. There are several links in this chain.”

Late Saturday, the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services sought to offer some clarity on the status of separated families. The administration said it had separated 2,342 children from their parents between May 5 and June 9. As of Wednesday, the day Trump signed his executive order, 2,053 remained in HHS custody.

In their joint statement, DHS and HHS also explained for the first time how immigrant families separated by the government can locate loved ones and how agencies plan to reunite them. Customs and Border Patrol so far has reunited 522 children with caregivers, according to the statement, which offered no information on what happened to families after they were rejoined.

Lawmaker Pilgrimage

Democratic members of Congress, including some presidential hopefuls for 2020, have made repeated pilgrimages to the border in the past few weeks to draw attention to the administration’s immigration policies.

The group that visited Tornillo, a dusty border town about 30 miles south of El Paso, on Saturday included Republicans Fitzpatrick, Mike Coffman of Colorado and Roger Marshall of Kansas.

The tents in which as many as 20 children are housed are clean and sparse, said the lawmakers, adding that they believed the facility’s workers were doing their best to help the detainees. Walls go to the ground and the temporary structures are air conditioned (temperatures in Tornillo hit 105 degrees Fahrenheit (41 Celsius) on Saturday). Detainees get two 10-minute phone calls each week.

Even with what appeared to be decent conditions, the lawmakers were alarmed.

“Kids who are here do not know when they’re going to be able to see their parents. That in itself is inhumane. As I’ve said, you could be in a four-star hotel. That’s inhumane,” said Representative Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat who represents El Paso, and who’s challenging Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican, in November.

All About the U.S. Separating Families at Its Border: QuickTake

Representative Joaquin Castro, a Democrat from San Antonio, described the living conditions as acceptable but said it didn’t make up for the fact that the children have been brought to the facility. “This whole thing is part of a morally bankrupt system,” he said.

Colorado’s Coffman faces a tough re-election fight as a Republican in a district in the Denver metropolitan area that Democrat Hillary Clinton won by 9 points in 2016. In a rare move among Republican lawmakers, he’s urged Trump to take aggressive action to reunify families and overhaul his immigration-policy team.

“The President should put a General, a respected retired CEO...or some other senior leadership figure on the job of making sure each and every child is returned to their parents,” Coffman wrote Thursday on Twitter.

Coffman also wrote that Trump should fire Stephen Miller, the controversial aide who’s one of the key architects of the immigration policy. “This is a human rights mess. It is on the President to clean it up and fire the people responsible for making it,” Coffman said.

Rising Numbers

The Tornillo facility opened this month to accommodate a rising population of minors -- many from El Salvador and Guatemala -- who’ve been taken into federal custody as a result of what the Trump administration calls a “zero tolerance” policy for border crossings.

Days after President Donald Trump’s executive order to stop separating families at the border, the federal bureaucracy is still grappling with how to reunify the families it had separated, and how to balance its tough stance on adults who cross the Mexican border with the handling of children entering the country with them.

On Thursday, Trump said he’d directed federal agencies to reunite children with their parents as soon as possible. HHS said late Friday that Azar had directed the agency’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response to apply its “operational and logistical expertise” in reunifying or placing children with a parent or “appropriate sponsor.”

‘Will Be Overrun’

Trump defended his policies during an appearance in Las Vegas on Saturday. If the U.S. shows any weakness, he said, “we will be overrun.”

Trump threw efforts by House Republicans to pass immigration legislation into turmoil on Friday, saying on Twitter that lawmakers were “wasting their time” until after the November elections.

Meanwhile, some two dozen Democratic House lawmakers visited a border detention center in McAllen, Texas, on Saturday, marking the second weekend in a row that Democrats have toured the facility to examine conditions and the treatment of immigrants held there.

Representative Elizabeth Esty, a Connecticut Democrat, said one of the detainees they saw was a 15-year-old girl who had traveled for a month to the border with her 6-month-old baby. The two were seated on a concrete floor, Esty said.

“This is a humanitarian crisis, and the chaos that this president has sowed is leaving these children and families afraid,” Esty said, flanked by other Democratic representatives including Anna Eshoo of California and Diana Degette of Colorado.

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