Marchers Protest at Site of ‘Tent City' for Separated Children

There are plans to house an estimated 360 children at the encampment in Tornillo and 4,000 may be kept there in the near future

Hundreds of people joined U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, to march on a site just off the bank of the Rio Grande that was chosen to hold a federal "tent city" that is housing migrant children separated from their parents upon arrival in the United States. 

The Department of Health and Human Services is building the 450-bed tent city at the Tornillo port of entry to house overflow from the Trump administration's new "zero tolerance" policy, sources have told NBC News. Migrant children began arriving at the facility on Friday.

Protesters came from as far as Alexandria, Virginia, Sunday in support of O’Rourke and his efforts to pressure the administration to reunite migrant children with their families. They chanted “families, united” and “say it loud, say it clear, immigrants are welcome here!” Over 1,000 were in attendance, according to organizers. 

“It forces us to act and places the pressure on those in positions of public trust and power to do the right thing,” O’Rourke said.

O’Rourke led a one-mile march from the farmlands of Tornillo to the port of entry that abuts the Rio Grande, which separates the U.S. from Mexico. Protesters used signs to shield themselves from the sun and cool off from the 90-degree weather.

For an hour, faith leaders and immigrant advocates called on the United States government to reunite migrant children with their families. Customs and Border Protection officials watched the march from their facilities at the port of entry.

The advocates were asked to say a few words about the importance of speaking out against the Trump administration’s policy.

Melissa Lopez, executive director of the Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services in El Paso, called the Trump administration’s policies an “assault” on immigrant communities nationwide. 

“They will continue to attack our immigrant brothers and sisters unless we continue to raise our voices and make sure the administration knows that we will not stand for them to continue to punish and criminalize immigrants,” she said.

O’Rourke, who is contesting Republican Sen. Ted Cruz for his Senate seat, was joined by several local public officials and U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy, D-Mass.

“We recognize that universal truth, that humanity does not come with citizenship or a green card,” Kennedy said.

Cruz defended the administration's policy while speaking at the Texas Republicans Convention over the weekend, Dallas News reported

"There's no doubt that the images that we've seen of children, and children being separated from their parents, are heartbreaking. They were heartbreaking when Obama was president," he said. "I visited the Obama camps that he set up to detain little boys and little girls who crossed the border illegally. Illegal immigration produces human tragedies that are wrong."

The Trump administration began enforcing a "zero tolerance" policy in April, which separates children from their parents because the adults have been referred to the Department of Homeland Security for prosecution, NBC News reported. From April 19 to May 31, 1,995 children were separated from 1,940 adults — about 46 children per day. 

Until the shift in policy, families were usually referred for civil deportation proceedings, which did not require separation, The Associated Press reported.  

As of Monday, the Department of Health and Human Services had 11,785 minors in its care, a number that jumped by 500 in the past two weeks and that includes “all minors at all shelters and facilities in the unaccompanied alien children program,” a department official told NBC News. 

At the current pace, the number of migrant children being held would hit 20,695 by the beginning of August.

On Saturday, children could be seen through the fence separating the U.S. and Mexico playing soccer in the Tornillo encampment. They were taken back into large white tents after a rainstorm came into the area.

There are plans to house an estimated 360 children at the encampment in Tornillo and 4,000 may be kept there in the near future, according to U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, who represents the area. 

Health and Human Services Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan in a Sunday statement noted that members of Congress are set to tour some Health and Human Services facilities for migrant children this week. 

"It is our hope that as members tour the facilities they will see the facilities for what they are intended to provide: safe and healthy environments for children and teenagers to reside until such time as they can be released to an appropriate sponsor, while their immigration cases are adjudicated," he said. 

He also pointed to "flaws in our immigration system" as a reason for a rising need for such facilities, and noted, like Cruz, that the previous administration also set up temporary shelters for children. 

"These semi-permanent structures have ventilation and cooling to ensure appropriate temperature, and teenagers at Tornillo range in age from 13-17. No [Unaccompanied Alien Children] under the age of 13 are placed at semi-permanent facilities such as Tornillo," Hargan said. 

David Stout, an El Paso county commissioner, said he joined the march because the El Paso community would not accept the Trump administration’s decision to separate children from their parents.

“It’s ridiculous what’s going on in this country,” he said. “What they’re doing to these children is inhumane.

Dominga Lopez, a Tornillo resident, said she was shocked to see children were brought to her hometown and none of her neighbors knew. She called on President Trump to think about how he would feel if his son was taken from him. 

“I cannot believe (the First Lady) would not speak up and make him do something that is right,” she said. “This is very wrong. And I don’t care what they say. They have misquoted the Bible and are hurting the children.”

First Lady Melania Trump waded into the debate though on Sunday, issuing a statement through her spokeswoman to say she "hates to see children separated from their families and hopes both sides of the aisle can finally come together to achieve successful immigration reform."

She added that the U.S. needs to "be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart."

Critics have countered that there is nothing stopping President Trump from ending the zero tolerance policy without congressional action. 

Former first lady Laura Bush wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post that the zero tolerance policy was "cruel," "immoral" and "breaks my heart." 

"Our government should not be in the business of warehousing children in converted box stores or making plans to place them in tent cities in the desert outside of El Paso," she wrote. "These images are eerily reminiscent of the Japanese American internment camps of World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history."

As protests unfolded in Texas, others across the country began to voice their opposition as well. Members of Congress in New Jersey and New York attempted to access a detention center in New Jersey Sunday, NBC News reported. The politicians were held off from entering for about two hours, but shared "heartbreaking" stories afterwards about fathers they had met with. 

—Maria Chamberlain, Suzanne Ciechalski and Daniel Macht contributed to this story.

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