Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen made a series of secretive visits to South Texas immigrant detention centers on Friday. One of the facilities the secretary visited, in Los Fresnos, houses parents whose children were taken from them under President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” family separation policy. Many of the detainees there are women, and many desperately wanted to speak with Nielsen. Instead, they were moved to a distant soccer field, where they shouted to Nielsen for help but were too far away for her to hear them.
Reporters could not talk to Nielsen either, even though, as confirmed to The Intercept by a DHS press secretary on Monday, she toured two Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers for adults in South Texas and a shelter in Brownsville that houses young children separated from their parents. Additionally, ICE confirmed to The Intercept on Tuesday that more than 60 women were moved during the secretary’s visit, though the agency claimed the move was for the purpose of “recreation.”
Nielsen’s visits happened with no public announcement, though tips and rumors abounded among the press in Brownsville. Reporter Mark Reagan, of the Brownsville Herald, told The Intercept that he learned from confidential sources that Nielsen would be at ICE’s Port Isabel Service Processing Center, a razor-wired facility on desolate land near the Gulf of Mexico that can hold as many as 1,175 adult detainees, in prison-like conditions.
Reagan drove 30 miles from Brownsville to the detention center, but his reporting did not go as planned. He expected to get some quotes from Nielsen, but when he got to Port Isabel, no one handed out talking points or conducted a press conference. Instead, Reagan saw official-looking vehicles pull up, but it was impossible to see who was in them. The vehicles departed after two hours, with the passengers’ identities still a mystery.
And they were a mystery to the prisoners at Port Isabel, too. Under an agreement between the Department of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services, Port Isabel has been designated as “the primary facility” housing parents separated from their children as part of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” campaign, which began in May and ended last month.
Four women who were detained there on Friday have since communicated with The Intercept. Each recounted being told by guards that afternoon to tidy up their dormitories. They were then directed onto a soccer field bathed in glaring sun with temperatures in the high 90s. One woman heard another say she did not want to go. “But the guard said we had to, that it was an order because some important officials were coming,” the woman said.
Once on the field, the women said, they saw from a distance a group of about 10 people dressed in street clothes. Details of the group’s appearance were hard to make out, but one detainee said she saw a “tall woman with shoulder-length, blond hair.”
Among the detainees were two women who have no idea where their teenage sons are being held and have not talked with them, as well as a woman whose 6-year-old is hundreds of miles away and unable to speak to her during calls from the child’s shelter, because he only cries when he gets on the phone. When The Intercept spoke with these women, none of them had lawyers.
On the soccer field, the women and dozens of other detainees assumed that the visitors were important people who could influence the U.S. president. So they began shouting together in Spanish: “Ayúdenos!” “Help us!”
Two women said their group was too far away from the officials to be heard. Two others said they believed that they and the other detainees had been put on the field so they would be hidden.
In an email to The Intercept, ICE’s Central and South Texas spokesperson, Nina Pruneda, said, “After coordinating with U.S. Secret Service special agents supporting DHS Secretary Kristjen Nielsen’s June 29 visit to the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos, Texas, ICE officers briefly moved detainees from one of the dorms to the soccer field for recreation. About 62 ICE detainees were involved; Secretary Nielsen spoke to various detainees while she toured the facility.”
The women who spoke to The Intercept indicated that Friday’s events were hardly recreational. They said they were kept on the field for two hours, until the visitors left. They did not get a chance to see if the official visit was publicized because, as two of them told The Intercept, they have no access to news broadcasts on television. “We ask the guards to turn the TV to a news channel, but they don’t,” said one woman. “Sometimes they do, but then they change it back, like to the World Cup,” said another. “Or they put on the news for a little bit but then turn the TV off,” said a third.
ProPublica reported yesterday that additional Port Isabel detainees said they were only allowed to watch telenovelas and English programming. One detainee told The Intercept that she did not know about Trump’s June 20 executive order halting family separation, or about an emergency injunction mandating that parents and children be reunited by July 26, until informed by The Intercept this past weekend. Jenn Elzea, a spokesperson for ICE, told ProPublica that, according to ICE detention standard guidelines, “All television viewing schedules shall be subject to the facility administrator’s approval.”
After the official visitors left Port Isabel on Friday afternoon, Reagan drove to the Southwest Key Casa El Presidente facility, a sprawling building tucked into a sparsely populated section of Brownsville. It holds some 80 children ages 10 and under, about half of whom were separated from their parents after they came as families across the border. At Casa El Presidente, a caravan of state and local police cars maneuvered some SUVs so that reporters could not see who was inside. No one would confirm or deny that Nielsen was present.
In an emailed statement to The Intercept on Monday, DHS press secretary Tyler Q. Houlton said Nielsen visited the border detention centers “late last week to see once again first-hand how the men and women of ICE, CBP and HHS are prioritizing the health, safety and welfare of all of those in our care and custody.”