Protesters, lawmakers want immigrant families reunited

McALLEN, Texas (AP) — Demonstrators led rallies and protests on 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.

Hundreds of people rallied near a Homestead, Florida, facility where immigrant children are being held. Demonstrators also marched in San Diego carrying signs reading “Free the Kids” and “Keep Families Together.”

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

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 U.S. 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.

In Florida, Argentine immigrant Maria Bilbao said she joined the protest because she came to the country 17 years ago with her then-9-year-old son and understands the fear of being separated from a child.

“What is happening in this country is disgusting,” said Bilbao, who worked as a cleaning woman before becoming a legal resident and now works for an immigrant rights group. “They should be letting people go to the outside so they can work and contribute to this country.”

More protests are planned for next weekend in states from Connecticut to California.

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.”

Tens of thousands of immigrants traveling with their families have been caught on the U.S.-Mexico border in recent years, many fleeing gang violence in Central America. About 9,000 such family units have been caught in each of the last three months, according to U.S. border authorities.

The Trump administration announced plans in April to prosecute all immigrants caught along the southwest border with illegally entering the country. Parents were jailed and children were taken to government-contracted shelters.

Now, the administration says it will continue with prosecutions and seek to detain families together during their immigration proceedings. Immigration officials have said they could seek up to 15,000 beds in family detention facilities, and the Pentagon is drawing up plans to house as many as 20,000 unaccompanied immigrant children on military bases.

The Trump administration is seeking changes to a decades-old settlement governing the detention of immigrant children to try to be able to detain children with their parents for longer periods of time.

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AP photographers David J. Phillip in McAllen, Texas and Brynn Anderson in Homestead, Florida, and writers Amy Taxin in Santa Ana, California, Terry Spencer, in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida and Michael Balsamo in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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