In the wake of President Donald Trump’s executive order last week ending the separation of migrant parents from their children at the U.S.-Mexico border, advocates and concerned citizens in Texas were careening from sober determination to fury as they worked to help reunite immigrant families.
Sober determination was evident in El Paso on Sunday, four days after the executive order was issued. On Sunday afternoon, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials released one of the first groups of parents whose criminal charges were withdrawn. With reporters present, they were dropped off at a nonprofit shelter to start looking for the children taken from them.
The arrival of 32 adults was preceded by a press conference at Casa Vides Annunciation House, a decades-old shelter for migrants in downtown El Paso. Director Ruben Garcia and legal coordinator Taylor Levy warned of what awaits the group.
Garcia said that a few days ago, when CBP contacted him to say that the parents would be released to the shelter, he asked if the children would be too. CBP said they would not be. And when Garcia asked what kind of help the parents would be receiving from the government to retrieve their sons and daughters, he was informed that “the only thing they’re going to be provided with is the 1-800 number.” Garcia was talking about a phone number given to detained and separated parents, which purportedly supplies information about the children’s whereabouts.
But Garcia said the number doesn’t work. “I can promise you that when these parents arrive here and we bring in 30 cellphones, they are not going to be able to talk to anyone who’s going to give them information to find their children.” Garcia’s conclusion is based on his conversations with lawyers, social workers, parents, and other family who have called the number looking for children. Levy said callers are routinely put on hold for an hour and a half, and operators typically say, “I can give you no information.” They also say that the wait time is five days to locate children — including babies and toddlers.
Garcia noted that criminal charges for illegal entry were being withdrawn only for migrants who were not yet tried or convicted when Trump issued the executive order. Thousands of others were apprehended before that, and virtually all pleaded guilty after having their sons and daughters taken from them. Most of these people are still in immigration detention or have been deported. Garcia said that even for parents who have already been freed and remain in the U.S., he does not believe the government has a workable reunification plan ready.
His supposition is based in large part on the fact that the plan to tear parents and kids from each other never worked smoothly, either. He knows this from experience. Even during the height of “zero tolerance,” in late May and early June, CBP had not completely abandoned “catch and release,” the earlier practice of freeing, under supervision, mothers, fathers, and children who had crossed the border illegally. Even after the advent of “zero tolerance,” Garcia saw dozens of “caught and released” families, because CBP routinely contacted him and told him that the agency would be sending him dozens of these people a week.
This reporter learned by chance about post-“zero tolerance” catch and release in early June, when I saw a woman with two small children and a father with one, walking in downtown El Paso. I spoke with them because the woman had a GPS monitor on her ankle; when I asked why, she and the man said they had both been caught crossing illegally into the U.S. the day before, but had not been criminally prosecuted or split from their kids. I later checked with Garcia, who verified that this group had been dropped off at one of his shelters. He said the government appeared to lack a consistent plan or practice for applying “zero tolerance.” His organization was experiencing the results of noisy government hype combined with quiet chaos — chaos that Trump never mentioned.
At the press conference, Garcia spoke about his shelter network’s plan to offer services for rapid family reunification, as well as pro bono legal services so that the immigrants can challenge government efforts to remove them from the U.S. One resource Garcia and his staff will use is the Innovation Law Lab, a national database that matches volunteer lawyers to immigrants who need representation. Garcia and Levy didn’t mention this, but RAICES, a San Antonio-based nonprofit that provides legal assistance to migrants, has raised $20 million in June from social media solicitations and is now organizing volunteers to complete intakes for separated families. Other nonprofits are doing similar work.
The press conference ended on a note of cautious optimism as journalists prepared for the arrival of an ICE bus carrying newly freed migrants.
Confrontation at the “Dog Kennel”
The El Paso event was calm. But the day before, on Saturday, frenzy erupted 600 miles to the south and east, in McAllen, Texas. Organizing for a protest there had begun four days earlier, which was just one day before Trump issued his executive order. Horror and anger about family separation motivated the organizing, which began early in the week, when the public was still unaware that the separation policy would soon be rescinded.
LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens, was the main organizing group. It’s a venerable, Mexican-American civil rights organization founded in Texas in the 1920s. Members, many of whom are middle-aged or elderly, had been pushed beyond their emotional limits over the past several weeks by unrelenting news of young, migrant children, mostly Latinos, caged and wailing. So, on very short order, LULAC started renting buses and asking members statewide to ride on Friday night to South Texas. The group teamed up with Faith Forward Dallas, an ecumenical group of mostly Christians, Jews, and Muslims who do social justice work together.
In all, about 500 people descended on the Border Patrol facility on Saturday. Their plan was to stand outside a Customs and Border Patrol holding area in McAllen nicknamed the “dog kennel” in Spanish, and yell to the children inside, “Los vemos! Los queremos!” “We see you! We love you!”
The protesters ended up doing just that — but in far woolier circumstances than they had imagined.
“These are not people who normally do this kind of stuff,” Alia Salem, a Faith Forward member, said about LULAC, which she calls “a zipped-up-suit organization that does not get on the front lines.” Indeed, LULAC had told its members that their demonstration should be “peaceful” and “civil,” and to wear clothes in the colors of the American flag. (Salem was turned off by that edict, but one of her friends, who, like her, is Muslim, complied with a red-white-and-blue hijab.)
In McAllen, the LULAC’ers began the protest with repetitive choruses of Los vemos, los queremos, along with some chants that are stock in trade at Latino protests: “La gente unida jamás sera vencida,” and others from the days of activist César Chávez. Their event sounded and looked like any South Texas protest: loud but rote, and punctiliously careful not to anger the authorities to action. There are just too many of those authorities to risk it: Border Patrol, state troopers, sheriff’s deputies, constables, local cops. And too many people who aren’t citizens, in a region where even a green-card holder can get deported for wrangling with the law. Not to mention someone without papers — and in the McAllen area, 1 in 8 longtime, loving-parent, good-student, hard-worker resident fits this bill.
So it was shocking, earth-shattering, when the government bus pulled out.
LULAC’s Dallas chapter president, Domingo Garcia, said he was the first to see it. It was long, shiny, and white, with dark windows. Even so, as Garcia peered at it, he saw “all these little hands waving at me.”
“There’s kids on this bus!” he yelled to the protesters.
“It was like gravity,” said Salem. “We were pulled!” In one great wave, the protesters — including a Muslim imam, Christians, Jewish men in yarmulkes, as well as older LULAC ladies in lipstick and scarves — rushed to the bus.
“That’s when we lost it,” Salem said. “People started screaming, crying, pressing against the bus like they were willing to get run over.” Salem didn’t care anymore about the flag stuff: “There was this moment when it didn’t matter what we were wearing or our politics — those were our babies!”
“Set the babies free!” the protesters roared over and over. Some stood in front of the bus. Others sat down. The children visible in the bus waved, and others pressed their hands on the dark glass. One protester, a woman, rubbed hearts into the dust on the windows. Another blew kisses at the kids. A middle-aged woman wailed in Spanish about the niñitos. A chant went up in response to Melania Trump’s jacket: “We care! We care! We care!”
A police or Border Patrol helicopter appeared in the sky, along with scores of troopers on the ground, cops, and four dozen Border Patrol agents. The protesters were ordered to let the bus pass, and they didn’t. Everyone realized that this polite, red-white-and-blue outing had turned into a spontaneous act of incipient unlawful resistance.
A white woman stood nose to nose with a cop, begging and weeping. “Just tell me you care! Tell me you care!” The temperature was in the 90s and south-Texas steamy. “Shame on you! Shame on you!” the protesters screamed at the border agents in their green uniforms.
A congressional delegation of 25 Democrats had been touring the site earlier, surrounded by national TV reporters and their cameras. Now, amazed, the press turned its equipment to the protesters. Despite or perhaps because of this attention, Garcia, the LULAC Dallas leader, worried that the protesters were in danger. He walked up to the law enforcement officers and said, “You need to de-escalate.” The bus then went backwards, returning to the building it had come from. The protest ended up on the evening’s national and international news.
The networks didn’t mention this, but as protests go, nothing as spontaneous and fevered had happened in anyone’s memory in South Texas.
Customs and Border Patrol’s media department did not respond over the weekend to The Intercept’s emailed question about who was on the bus and where it was going. But a CBP spokesperson told the Dallas Morning News that the agency had been transferring “family groups” from its processing center in McAllen to ICE for processing (the protesters saw some adults on the bus in addition to children). And a shelter in McAllen this weekend received two migrant adults whose criminal charges were withdrawn just after Trump’s executive order was released, and who arrived at the shelter with their children.
It is impossible to say how long it will take for the more than 2,000 children who were separated from their parents to be reunited. For anguished parents, any time will be too long. And for the protesters who came to South Texas this weekend, the time may be immaterial. They feel deeply hurt by “zero tolerance.” In McAllen, they lay and stood and kissed and waved and spoke their hearts, in ways seldom seen on the border because “there is this fear,” said Marlene Guerrero Chavez, a local activist. They are not citizens, they are undocumented, or the people they organize lack status. “It’s great that they’re coming,” Guerrero Chavez said of the out-of-towners, “because a lot of local organizers aren’t able to do this.”
During the LULAC and Faith Forward Dallas protest, Chavez caught a glimmer of what is possible for the locals by working with visitors. “I hope we can get assistance,” she said, “from organizations from out of town that do civil disobedience.” She has already been in touch.
Additional reporting by Veronica G. Cardenas in McAllen, Texas.