U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., center, and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Ct., left, speak with a Dept. of Homeland Security agent as they arrive to tour the Fabens Port-of-Entry facility which houses tent shelters used to hold separated family members, Friday, June 22, 2018, in Fabens, Texas. President Donald Trump's order ending the policy of separating immigrant families at the border leaves a host of unanswered questions, including what happens to the children already taken from their parents and where the government will house all the newly detained migrants in a system already bursting at the seams. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Democratic lawmakers want plan to reunite immigrant families

June 23, 2018 - 2:18 pm

MCALLEN, Texas (AP) — After touring a border processing facility on Saturday, Democratic lawmakers said they weren't convinced the Trump administration had any real plan to reunite immigrant children separated from their parents by U.S. border authorities.

The delegation of 25 members of Congress visited a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility in the U.S.-Mexico border city of McAllen, Texas. They described seeing children sleeping behind bars, on concrete floors and under emergency "mylar" heat-resistant blankets.

Even when parents and children aren't separated, they are often housed in adjacent cells that keep them apart, the lawmakers said. They added they hadn't seen a clear federal system for reuniting those who were split up, since everyone — even infants — is assigned "A'' or alien numbers, only to be given different identification numbers by other federal agencies.

"There are still thousands of children who are out there right now untethered to their parents and no coherent system to fix that," Rep. Joe Courtney, a Democrat from Connecticut, told reporters after the tour.

The remarks come amid an outcry over the Trump administration's separation of immigrant families on the border. In recent weeks, more than 2,300 children were taken from their families under a "zero-tolerance" policy in which people entering the U.S. illegally face prosecution.

After the public response, President Donald Trump on Wednesday ordered that they be brought back together. But confusion has ensued, with parents left searching for their children.

At an immigration detention facility in Port Isabel, Texas, attorney Jodi Goodwin has been trying to help reunite families. Another lawyer identified parents separated from their children at criminal court hearings in McAllen, and Goodwin then followed up with them in custody to collect information about their cases and their children.

Goodwin said she has been inundated with requests from the parents, and the list is still growing.

"Once you end up talking with one parent they tell you that there are 70 other parents in their dorm that are also separated and can I help them," she said. "We haven't tapped out on the number of adults that have been separated."

She said Immigration and Customs Enforcement has asked her to share the information to assist in the process.

Demonstrations over the separation of families are planned for the weekend, including a rally Saturday in Fort Worth, where the Texas Democratic Convention is being held, and a protest in Homestead, Florida.

Tens of thousands of immigrants traveling with their families have been caught on the U.S.-Mexico border in recent years, many fleeing gang violence in Central America. About 9,000 such family units have been caught in each of the last three months, according to U.S. border authorities.

The Trump administration announced plans in April to prosecute all immigrants caught along the southwest border with illegally entering the country. Parents were jailed and children were taken to government-contracted shelters.

Now, the administration says it will continue with prosecutions and seek to detain families together during their immigration proceedings. That move has also sparked an outcry from women's and children's advocates who say children don't belong in jail.

Immigration officials have said they could seek up to 15,000 beds in family detention facilities, and the Pentagon is drawing up plans to house as many as 20,000 unaccompanied immigrant children on military bases.

The Trump administration is also seeking changes to a decades-old settlement governing the detention of immigrant children to try to be able to keep children with their parents in custody for longer periods of time.

On Saturday, lawmakers on the tour in McAllen said they believed border agents were handling the situation as well as could be expected at the facility for immigrants recently apprehended along the border.

But Rep. Barbara Lee of California called what she witnessed "shocking and outrageous" and said the visiting lawmakers saw no evidence that children are receiving counseling or mental health care to cope with the stress of being in federal custody.

"It is, for all intents and purposes, a prison," said Rep. Jackie Speier, of California.

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AP photographer David J. Phillip contributed to this report.

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