Protesters demand family reunification

McALLEN — Protesters rallied Saturday to decry the separation of immigrant parents from their children by U.S. border authorities, while Democratic lawmakers said they aren’t convinced the Trump administration has any real plan to reunite them.

Outside a border patrol facility here, protesters temporarily blocked a bus carrying immigrants and shouted “Shame! Shame!” at the border agents.

“Let the children free” and “We’re here for the children” were some of the phrases shouted.

The demonstrations came days after the Trump administration reversed course in the face of public and political outrage and had authorities stop separating immigrant families caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

At one point, as tension escalated, Border Patrol agents formed a human chain to block the protesters from entering the center grounds as the demonstrators attempted to block traffic into the facility.

Human rights activist and writer Kerry Kennedy has been in McAllen since Thursday visiting with agencies like La Union Del Pueblo Entero (LUPE) to discuss the situation along the border.

Kennedy along with Dolores Huerta, farmworker labor leader and civil rights activist, attended an event at Archer Park called “Break Bread Not Families.” It was organized by local rights groups including LUPE, Texas Civil Rights Project and NetaRGV.

Kennedy called for a 24-hour fast in honor of the 2,400 children held in detention and separated from their parents.

“We demand reunification and demand the torture stop and demand that they get visas and stay here in our country,” Kennedy said. “I’m a mother and thought about my children, I’m a daughter and thought about the time as a child when I was lost at the world’s fair in 1964; I was 4-years-old and that was the most terrifying memory of my childhood.”

The demonstrations came days after the Trump administration reversed course in the face of public and political outrage and had authorities stop separating immigrant families caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

In recent weeks, more than 2,300 children were taken from their families under a “zero-tolerance” policy in which people entering the United States illegally face prosecution. While the family separations were ended, confusion has ensued, with parents left searching for their children.

And the administration says it will now seek to detain immigrant families during their immigration proceedings, which has also stoked an outcry.

“There is no clear plan for reunification,” Kennedy said. “It’s becoming increasingly clear this nation doesn’t not know how to bring those families back together.”

Evelyn Stauffer, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said her agency is trying to help reunite families or place unaccompanied immigrant children with an appropriate sponsor.

But a group of 25 Democratic lawmakers who toured a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility in the U.S.-Mexico border city of McAllen, Texas, said they hadn’t seen a clear federal system for reuniting those who were split up. Everyone — even infants — is assigned “A” or alien numbers, only to be given different identification numbers by other federal agencies.

They described seeing children sleeping behind bars, on concrete floors and under emergency “mylar” heat-resistant blankets.

“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.

Immigration lawyers are also trying to help facilitate reunions. At criminal court hearings in McAllen, one lawyer identified parents separated from their children, and immigration attorney Jodi Goodwin said she followed up with them at a detention facility in Port Isabel, Texas, 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, adding that immigration authorities had asked her to share the information so they could assist. “We haven’t tapped out on the number of adults that have been separated.”

At the rally in McAllen, Kennedy said that the national focus on the issue must continue in order to force change in Washington.

“We need to create change, my father is Bobby Kennedy and he ran for president 50 years ago and said peace, justice and compassion toward those who suffer; that’s what the United States should stand for,” Kennedy said. “That’s the message people are yearning for today and that’s what we want our country to stand for and community and families to be.”

Will Weissert and David J. Phillip of the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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