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Protests in Tornillo Continue as Lawmakers Gain Access to Child Shelters Along the Border

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Physicians from Seattle to Austin gathered in Tornillo Saturday in protest of what they call "unspeakable cruelty towards children." (Sally Beauvais / Marfa Public Radio)

Democratic Congressman Beto O'Rourke — along with several other lawmakers —returned to the town of Tornillo on Saturday, nearly one week after he marched at the same location alongside 2,000 others, in protest of family separation at the border.

This time, O'Rourke — who's challenging Republican Senator Ted Cruz for his seat —was allowed a look inside the tent encampment at the local port of entry that's currently holding a group of approximately 270 undocumented children, ages 13 to 17.

O'Rourke's impressions of the medical care, food, and facilities Saturday afternoon were "positive." But he says that doesn't mean he approves of the policy that brought the children here.

"This crisis, this tent city, is only built because this administration decided to impose a crisis by taking kids away from their parents," O'Rourke says, adding that the CEO of the company who put the tents up told him the same.

According to O'Rourke, 23 of of the kids in the tents were separated from their parents at the border. He was joined Saturday by U.S. Representative Joaquin Castro, a Democrat from Texas, alongside a handful of other members of Congress from New Mexico, Florida, New York, Colorado and Kansas. The politicians say they saw and talked to children inside the facility, which, according to Castro, now includes 7 girls. Castro says the girls arrived in Tornillo very recently, and it appears they're being kept separated from the boys.

According to San Antonio politician  the girls seem "sadder" than the boys, an observation he attributes to their recent arrival to the tent encampment. Two of them told Castro they were previously detained elsewhere for 45 and 46 days.

"We did not get a clear answer from the [Health and Human Services] representative [on the tour] about which facilities are holding the young women and girls. That's a disturbing result of this tour," says Castro.

He doesn't know if any members of Congress have gotten a clear answer about where most girls, who've been largely kept out of the public eye, are being housed.

Castro and O'Rourke aren't the first Texas officials to receive a tour of the border town facility. Days after the encampment was first set up, Democratic State Rep. Mary González and Republican Congressman Will Hurd — both of whose district includes the Texas town of 1,400 — took a tour of the site. Both said the site is well maintained.

After his visit, Hurd told reporters there were bathrooms, showers and medical facilities at the site. He also says there are roughly 20 children in each air-conditioned tent, supervised by two adults. González spoke with Marfa Public Radio and KQED shortly after her tour. She said the facility is being run by emergency management professionals, the type of response team that would be called for hurricanes.

“It was a surprise,” González said. “Not to say this is good. We should all be resisting this, but I felt the kids were at least safe.”

The shelter can hold up to roughly 360 children. But officials have said they are considering increasing the site’s capacity to 4,000.

Slowly but surely, lawmakers are gaining access to shelters housing migrant children along the Southwestern border. Following visits to facilities in the Rio Grande Valley, Republican US Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn echoed the need to keep migrant families together after they cross the border, as long as future immigration policy more effectively curbs illegal crossing.

Still, President Trump's executive order calling for the end of family separation has failed to dampen the concerns of many along the Texas-Mexico border.

Protests have become a regular part of life at the Tornillo-Guadalupe Port of Entry since the tent facility materialized seemingly overnight in mid-June.

Just several hours before O'Rourke, Castro and their fellow congresspeople toured the tents, a group of Texas-based physicians and nurses gathered in the same spot. In white coats and stethoscopes, they marched against what they see as child health-harming policies.

El Paso-based physician Carrie Guevara says she's worried about the potential long-term health impacts that kids separated from their parents for indefinite periods of time could face, like trauma, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Days before the protest, on Thursday, a bi-partisan group of nearly 20 mayors from across the country congregated at the border crossing. They called for more transparency from the federal government regarding the status of more than 2,300 migrant children who have been separated from their parents since May.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said he currently has more than 100 migrant children in his city. "We don't know any information about them," Garcetti said. "We have to find out from activists instead of the government."

The same day, a group of protestors in El Paso marched to the local county detention center, where migrant parents separated from their children were awaiting criminal sentencing.

Hours earlier, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas, which includes El Paso, dismissed some cases of illegal entry into the United States involving family separation. The office told Marfa Public Radio it would dismiss pending cases involving family separation because of President Trump's executive order calling for families to be detained together.


Later in the day, however, the same spokesperson retracted the confirmation of case dismissals without further explanation. In a new statement, his office maintains that the administration’s zero tolerance is “still in effect” but says there is a “necessary transition” that needs to happen.

According to a Trump Administration official, 500 migrant children separated from their parents at the border have been reunified with family members since May.

<i>Reporting by Sally Beauvais, Diana Nguyen and Carlos Morales.&nbsp;&nbsp;</i>

Sally Beauvais is a reporter at Marfa Public Radio.