McALLEN — Protests continued here and elsewhere in the nation Monday as growing outrage over the more than 2,000 children separated from their parents at the border continues to pressure the Trump administration to make a more tolerant “zero-tolerance” policy.
In Reno, Nevada, where hundreds protested family separations outside a school safety conference on Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended the administration’s immigration policies and called on Congress to act, asserting that many children were brought to the border by violent gang members.
“Children have indeed borne much of the burden of our broken immigration system,” he told the National Association of School Resource Officers in Reno earlier that day. “Get this. More than 80 percent of the children crossing our borders are coming by themselves, without parents or guardians, often sent with a paid smuggler. We can only guess how many never make it to our border during that dangerous journey. Eighty percent.”
He described the alternative to what he called the compassionate thing to do — protecting children from violence and drugs and putting criminals in jail — is having open borders.
But remarks from Commissioner Kevin McAleenan of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which came shortly after Sessions’ comments, said the agency abandoned its effort to prosecute immigrant families who cross the southern border. This comes after the president ordered an end to the separation of parents and children last week.
McAleenan told reporters in Texas that he stopped sending prosecutors cases of parents charged with illegally entering the country in response to Trump’s executive order last week to cease separating families.
The two still insisted that the administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy remains in effect, but the cases cannot be prosecuted because parents cannot be separated from their children. The commissioner said he is working on a plan to resume prosecution more than 50 people protested outside the immigration processing center Monday morning as the administration continues efforts to reunite more than 2,000 children separated.
Abby Porth, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the San Francisco Bay Area, said she and a small delegation made the trip from San Francisco to see for themselves what was occurring at the epicenter of what many have called a humanitarian crisis.
Porth, 42, who has been with JCRC for nearly 20 years, said she and many like her are concerned about what is happening to the children in detention centers like the one in McAllen.
“I’m with a delegation that’s calling for transparency, humanity and compassion, and we are here to see what is going on on the ground so that we can be more effective in doing advocacy back home,” Porth said at the protest. “The Jewish experience in America is like most American experiences — a story of immigration. Our community really believes in liberal, rational and compassionate immigration policies.
“We believe every person who wants to live in this country is deserving of dignity and respect, and we’re deeply concerned about the separation of the children from their parents.”
What’s more, Porth said the JCRC is also concerned that immigration numbers aren’t clear, even alleging that they’re being kept “artificially low — lower than we’ve seen at other points in our history at a time when there’s dramatic need.”
Jerry Martinez, 56, of Edinburg said family separations are not what America is about.
“Granted that these people are looking for a better life, but to put them through this situation is inhumane, and I just could not stand by anymore and just watch it on TV,” Martinez said about why he attended the protest in McAllen on Monday. “I felt that I had to get involved.”
Speaking about the trauma a child endures when separated from their parents, Martinez attempted to empathize by relating to the plight of parents with small children, noting he has 15 nieces and nephews.
“To see them ripped away from my brother and sister would be unconscionable to even come across, because of the love and nurturing that they try to provide for each and every one of their children will be ripped out of their hands,” Martinez added. “And where do you turn? These children have no one to turn to, no one to trust. I just want to see these kids go back with their families where they belong.”
Notable civil rights leaders have also made their way to the area, including the Reverend Al Sharpton and Dolores Huerta, to speak out against the detention of families and children.
The continued action comes as several defense officials confirmed that the Trump administration has chosen Army and Air Force bases in Texas — Fort Bliss and Goodfellow Air Force Base — to house detained migrants swept up in the federal government’s crackdown on illegal immigration, several defense officials said Monday.
U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, also extended an invitation to lady Melania Trump, asking via a letter he penned Monday to return and visit with the migrant children affected directly by the zero tolerance policy. She had already visited in an unannounced tour Thursday.
Officials with the Texas Civil Rights Project released the latest numbers in regard to how many families had been reunited, saying that as of June 23, the Department of Homeland Security reported that CBP has reunited 522 “unaccompanied alien children” in its custody who were separated from adults as part of the policy.
“We do not have confirmation of these and have received conflicting reports regarding reunification,” a TCRP news release stated. “We have been able to confirm four reunifications of families we had interviewed on Tuesday, June 19, and Wednesday, June 20, 2018, the day the executive order was signed.”
Scott Sonner and John L. Mone of the Associated Press contributed to this report.