MCALLEN, Texas (AP) — Democratic lawmakers on Saturday said they aren't convinced the Trump administration had any real plan to reunite immigrant families caught along the southwest border, while demonstrators gathered to protest the separation of parents from their children by U.S. border authorities.
After 25 Democratic members of Congress toured a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility in the U.S.-Mexico border city of McAllen, Texas, they described seeing children sleeping behind bars, on concrete floors and under emergency "mylar" heat-resistant blankets.
Even when parents and children aren't separated, they are often housed in adjacent cells that keep them apart, the lawmakers said. They added they hadn't seen a clear federal system for reuniting those who were split up, since everyone — even infants — is assigned "A'' or alien numbers, only to be given different identification numbers by other federal agencies.
"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.
After the lawmakers left, dozens of immigrant rights demonstrators temporarily blocked a bus carrying immigrants from leaving the facility, and shouted "Shame! Shame!" at border agents. Protests were also planned for Fort Worth, where the Texas Democratic Convention is being held, and Homestead, Florida.
The Trump administration's separation of immigrant families on the border has stoked an outcry from immigrant and children's advocates and many lawmakers. 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.
After the public response, President Donald Trump on Wednesday ordered that they be brought back together. But confusion has ensued, with parents left searching for their children.
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.
At an immigration detention facility in Port Isabel, Texas, attorney Jodi Goodwin has been trying to bring families together. Another lawyer identified parents separated from their children at criminal court hearings in McAllen, and Goodwin then followed up with them in custody 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. That move has also sparked an outcry from advocates who say children don't belong in jail.
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 also seeking changes to a decades-old settlement governing the detention of immigrant children to try to be able to keep children with their parents in custody for longer periods of time.
On Saturday, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson and four of the state's Democratic House members toured a center where about 100 immigrant children taken from their parents are being held. The group brought red, white and blue balloons with them inside to show children that the American people care about them.
In McAllen, the visiting lawmakers said they believed border agents were handling the situation as well as could be expected at the facility for immigrants recently apprehended along the border.
But Rep. Barbara Lee of California called what she witnessed "shocking and outrageous" and said lawmakers saw no evidence children were receiving counseling or mental health care to cope with the stress of being in federal custody.
"It is, for all intents and purposes, a prison," said Rep. Jackie Speier, of California.