BROWNSVILLE — How does love demand us to act?
Sister Phyllis Peters of Proyecto Juan Diego, an advocacy group part of the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network, posed that question Monday during a roundtable discussion on the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy that has led to families being separated at the border.
“I believe strongly that this will be on all of our consciousness, not only on President Trump’s,” Peters said. “I believe it is a universal sin unless we get up and really act, and defend what we believe. I’m not sure we’re doing that today, because when we’re abusing children, not only those who are coming into our country, we are also abusing all the others who are witnessing these actions.
“It’s our children, our future generations that will be affected by these actions. And so, that’s what disturbs me the most.”
A day after media and lawmakers got a look inside the immigration processing center in McAllen, U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, hosted a roundtable Monday with members of Congress and local immigration advocates regarding the family separations crisis along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Vela, who stood with protesters outside the Ursula Processing center at Sunday’s Father’s Day vigil and protest, said this is an issue that can be changed with a stroke of a pen.
Homeland Security Committee Ranking Member Bennie Thompson, D-MS, joined Vela along with Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-TX; Ben Ray Luján, D-NM; Frederica Wilson, D-FL; and Joaquin Castro, D-TX; Secretary Julian Castro, Housing and Urban Development. Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño, Monsignor Bert Diaz of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Michael Seifert with the ACLU, Christina Patiño Houle with RGVEVN and Scott Nicol and Jim Chapman of Sierra Club also attended.
Members of Congress arrived for the roundtable after spending much of the morning touring both Casa Padre and Casa Presidente, the Southwest Keys Program facilities where unaccompanied children are being housed.
The lawmakers spoke of the facilities and their interaction with some of the children, and the personnel tasked with caring for them.
One by one, every person in attendance condemned the continuing practice of removing these kids from their parents.
Calling it “immoral and disgraceful,” the lawmakers said President Trump has the power to end this policy immediately.
Dr. Dolly Lucio, a Brownsville pediatrician, was also on hand to provide her input on the potential issues related to separation of children from their parents.
“We immediately traumatize them by removing them from their parents,” Lucio said. “There’s something called complex trauma, which is trauma suffered before previous trauma has been resolved. You’re immediately creating a mentally unstable adult, even if you reunite them with their parents, they still suffered that trauma.”
Lucio considers the policy of separating children from their parents a form of torture for these kids.
Despite overwhelming condemnation from immigration advocates and Democratic lawmakers, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen defended the practice of separating minor family members from their parents, contradicting there is no policy “of separating families at the border. Period.”
In a tweet Sunday night, shortly after members of the media toured a immigration processing center in McAllen, Nielsen said the media and others were acting “irresponsibly,” by misreporting the enforcement DHS has carried out.
“As I have said many times before, if you are seeking asylum for your family, there is no reason to break the law and illegally cross between ports of entry,” Nielsen tweeted.
U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who was in the Rio Grande Valley last Monday for his own tour of facilities and meeting with asylum seekers, said he had heard the same reports of CBP officers going into the “no man’s zone” between the two countries and heading off asylum seekers. Vela said Monday he has heard the same.
But published reports show at least a few recent instances of U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers in El Paso, McAllen and Nogales turning away asylum seekers — claiming lack of capacity.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, who visited with media in McAllen before noon Monday, appeared to be under the impression asylum seekers could present themselves at the ports of entry without issue.
“My message is very simple, if you’re going to ask for asylum of credible fear, go through the port of entry because there you will not violate section 13.25,” Cuellar said.
When asked about the incidents of asylum seekers being denied their outcry, Cuellar said he would check with CBP.
“I’ll double-check with CBP, but my understanding is if you come through a port of entry, you have not violated the law,” Cuellar added. “So they cannot arrest you and they cannot separate you from your kids.”
U.S. Border Patrol Rio Grande Valley Sector Chief Manuel Padilla Jr., who met with members of the media Sunday, said there was no policy of separating families, instead stressing that if there are no consequences for those who enter the country illegally, the result could potentially be larger number of immigrants coming into the country.
Padilla, echoing the public statements of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions whose April 6 memo on zero tolerance ignited the current separations along the border, said the implementation of the aforementioned memo is done purposefully to deter future illegal crossers.
President Trump on Monday took to social media to blame Democrats for not doing enough to protect the country’s borders. But some critics view the current administration’s policy as a ploy to negotiate funding of a border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“It is the Democrats fault for being weak and ineffective with Boarder (sic) Security and Crime,” Trump tweeted. “Tell them to start thinking about the people devastated by Crime coming from illegal immigration. Change the laws.”
In an interview with a CBS morning show Monday, Padilla said reports of parents not being made aware of being separated from children was “misinformation.”
But the CBS reporter stated that during her tour of the facility she personally heard from parents who said they were not aware of the separation.
Instead, Border Patrol agents at the processing center said parents are made aware of the separation when it is determined they will be sent for criminal prosecution by way of an informational handout. But the handout does not give information regarding where the child would end up.
Also on Monday, U.S. Senator John Cornyn, R-TX, discussed his plan to update and reintroduce his 2014 legislation, the HUMANE Act, to keep parents and children who’ve been apprehended at the border together while they wait for their court hearings.
Condemnation from the GOP has not been widely reported, and Cornyn appears to be the only Republican proposing legislation to stop the separation at the border.
“We have to keep family members together and prevent unnecessary hardship, stress and outrage,” Cornyn said. “The good news is we have it within our power to find a better way, because parents who are awaiting court proceedings shouldn’t have to do so separated from their children, and children shouldn’t be taken from their parents and left frightened and confused about where they are and what is transpiring around them.
“I would ask our colleagues on both sides of the aisle to take a hard look at this bill and to work together to find a reasonable solution for this component of the crisis at our border.”
On Monday, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-TX, in a reversal from just the day before also called for an immediate end to family separations and announced the introduction of the Protect Kids and Parents Act, according to a news release.
“We can fix this,” Cruz said in a prepared statement. “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. And we can honor the rule of law.”