Conditions in the recently opened tent city in far west Texas appear to be good, but that should not excuse a policy of separating families as a form of deterrence, the congressman who represents the area where the facility is located said Saturday. U.S. congressman Will Hurd, a Republican whose district includes about one third of the U.S.-Mexico border—more than any other House member—toured the facility on Friday, just days after federal officials acknowledged its creation to accommodate a growing number of children that are being taken from parents who entered the United States illegally. He told Texas Monthly that the facility, located in his congressional district in Tornillo, is currently housing sixteen- and seventeen-year-old boys who arrived at the border as unaccompanied minors. He said the facility does not yet appear to be housing children separated from their parents by the government, but he said the facility wouldn’t exist without the Trump family separation policy.
“You have almost 400 sixteen- and seventeen-year-old boys in a facility, and they’ve been moved from other facilities around the country because of the influx of the kids that are being separated from their families,” he said. Hurd blasted the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents. “If, in order to address our broken immigration system, we’re using children as a deterrent, then we have a problem,” said Hurd.
The facility is adjacent to the Marcelino Serna Port of Entry in Tornillo, about thirty miles east of El Paso. A Hurd-sponsored bill in 2016 named the port of entry for Serna, a Mexican immigrant who joined the Army in 1917 to avoid deportation and went on to become the most decorated Texas soldier in World War I. Hurd said the facility appears to be safe and well run. It houses the minors in air-conditioned tents, with twenty boys per unit. The facility has one adult for every ten children and offers health care services, including emergency mental health screening if necessary. “They get three meals a day and snacks, it’s the same food that the staff eats. There are fifty caseworkers that are working to get them placed with other family members. Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services [RAICES], which is a pro-bono legal group, has access there. They’re prepared for a flood; they have two fire engines. They have a clinic manned by six nursing professionals. This place is being run by emergency management professionals that have been in probably every disaster you can name in the past decade. They most recently were in Port Arthur and Houston during Hurricane Harvey, and they were helping out at Sutherland Springs as well. Ultimately, the reason you have to go to this extreme is because of a failed policy of separating kids.”
[Related: Read Katy Vine’s interview with Anne Chandler, executive director of the Houston office of the nonprofit Tahirih Justice Center, about what’s happening on the ground when parents and children are separated.]
Hurd is one of the most vocal Republican critics of separating children—most fleeing violence and deep poverty in Central America—from their parents when they are apprehended by the Border Patrol for illegal entry. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in May announced a new “zero tolerance” policy that aims to file criminal charges—usually a misdemeanor—against any adult entering the country illegally. Sessions and others have said the zero tolerance and family separation policy attempts to deter future migrants from seeking to enter the United States. A 1997 court settlement prohibits the government from detaining minors, so the Trump administration has begun separating children from parents and housing them in separate facilities, often without family members knowing the whereabouts of each other.
“In the land of the free and home of the brave, you do not use children for deterrence, plain and simple. To imagine those hundred kids under the age of four—and that’s old data—being taken from their parents, I don’t know how you don’t get outraged by that,” Hurd said.
We know that from October 2017 to March, there was about seven hundred separations, and one hundred of those kids were under the age of four. Which is crazy to think because under the age of four they probably have never been separated from their mother or father.
— Congressman Will Hurd (R-Texas)
Despite what he acknowledged as decent conditions, Hurd blasted the policy choices that led to the creation of the tent city by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “We know that from October 2017 to March, there was about seven hundred separations, and one hundred of those kids were under the age of four. Which is crazy to think because under the age of four they probably have never been separated from their mother or father. Recent reporting has suggested that in the last two months there’s been almost two thousand separations of the kids from their parents,” he said. Hurd added that the American Academy of Pediatrics and other medical groups have made it clear that separation from parents causes extensive harm to children.
Hurd was among a group of moderate Republicans who attempted a rarely used legislative tactic called a discharge petition to force a vote on bills concerning Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama administration program that protected from deportation hundreds of thousands of people who were brought illegally to the country as children. The Trump administration moved last year to end DACA. The discharge petition effort so far has fallen just short of the needed signatures, and House Speaker Paul Ryan has promised a vote next week on two bills that tie DACA relief to additional border security spending and other immigration reforms.
Hurd said he doesn’t think either of the bills has the votes to pass the Republican-led House. He is critical of a so-called compromise bill that Ryan and others have touted as a way to end family separation. Hurd said the bill would lock up parents and children in jails together, an idea he finds abhorrent. “The way they’re trying to address family separation is by allowing (the Department of Homeland Security) to indefinitely detain families. And so they think, by indefinitely detaining families, then that’s keeping the family together. That’s not solving the problem of family separation.”
Hurd favors other approaches, such as restoring the Family Case Management Program that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement ended last year after its funding was cut. The participants were placed under intense scrutiny, with many wearing ankle monitors. “They have better outcomes; 95 to 99 percent of the people who were in this program showed up for their court cases. It was only something like $36 a day per family, which is significantly cheaper than detention,” Hurd said. “Those are the ways that we should be looking at how we solve these problems. And, by the way, we’ve got to address root causes in places like Central America. We’ve got to make sure that we fix our broken immigration system.”
U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke, D–El Paso, in the district adjacent to Hurd’s, plans to lead a protest march to the Tornillo facility on Sunday, which is Father’s Day. O’Rourke is challenging Republican senator Ted Cruz, who supports the family separation policy. Cruz was in San Antonio on Saturday for the state’s biennial Republican convention and criticized Democrats for politicizing the situation. “Well, I certainly assume that Democrats will continue to play politics on immigration,” Cruz told Texas Monthly. “There’s no doubt the images that we’ve seen of children and children being separated from their parents are heartbreaking. They were heartbreaking when Obama was president.” There was no formal policy of family separation under the Obama administration, but a 2014 surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America forced the Obama administration to scramble for temporary housing as well. “I’ve visited the Obama camps that he set up to detain little boys and little girls who cross the border illegally,” Cruz said. “Illegal immigration produces human tragedies that are wrong. I don’t think we should have any children that are brought across the border illegally many times by drug cartels and coyotes who abuse those children, who sexually assault or physically assault those children. And it underscores the need to secure the border, number one, and number two, to continue to welcome and celebrate legal immigrants. That’s the way the system’s supposed to work, so that you don’t have kids facing the tragedies that they’re facing right now that they’ve faced for many years and many decades.”
This report contains information from Texas Monthly senior editor R. G. Ratcliffe.