U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, and more than 20 members of the U.S. Congress journeyed to Texas last Friday to visit immigration detention facilities where hundreds of adults and children are being held after they tried to enter the United States.
The conversations Eshoo had with distraught mothers, she said Monday, are keeping her awake at night.
In the Brownsville, Texas facility – under the control of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) – Eshoo met with at least seven mothers whose children had been taken away.
"They were beside themselves and filled with grief and worry. They had no idea where their children were; no one could tell them; they didn't know how long they were going to be held there. They were in prison uniforms," she said.
Under the Trump Administration's "zero tolerance" policy, thousands of people have been taken into custody in recent months and are being held in detention cells and cages while they await deportation, prosecution or an asylum hearing. Many hundreds of children have been separated from their parents.
On June 20, facing widespread bipartisan outrage, President Trump issued an executive order that reversed the practice of separating children from their families. But those family members who are already apart remain that way for now.
More than 2,053 children were being held in U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)-funded facilities as of June 20. An additional 522 children had been reunited with their parents. About 17 percent were separated from their parents at the border; 83 percent arrived in the U.S. without a parent or guardian, according to a June 23 Health and Human Services statement.
What deeply troubled Eshoo during the visit is that the agencies didn't seem prepared to implement the administration's policy. There is no dual-tracking system for the children who have been separated from their parent, she said.
The children have only a telephone number of a relative pinned to their clothing. Some Border Patrol and ICE agents told Eshoo that parents wrote the phone number of relatives on their child's shoes before they were taken away. But many of the children are so small that they don't even know their last names or even their parents' first names, she said.
HHS staff said children are allowed to speak to their parents at least twice a week. But Eshoo said she did not find a mother who said that has actually happened. Parents were given instructions on how to use a free phone service but Eshoo said the system doesn't work. The mother must have some resources to pay for the minutes they're on the phone, and many have nothing, they said.
"The mothers were so distraught. We asked questions, and they were just continually weeping and sobbing. They were given some tear sheets that ICE had given to everyone that said to 'call this number so that you can be connected with your child.' I've been calling the number and no one answers," Eshoo said.
HHS issued a three-page press release on June 23, "Zero-Tolerance Prosecution and Family Reunification," which states that federal employees know where all of the children are located. It refutes reports that the agencies are disorganized, and it claims to have a process for reunification.
"A parent who is ordered removed from the U.S. may request that his or her minor child accompany them. It should be noted that in the past many parents have elected to be removed without their children," the officials stated.
Eshoo disputed that claim.
"I never heard one of the mothers say that. We asked them that," she said.
The mothers are also told they can ask ICE personnel to help them locate their child.
"None of this works for any of the mothers we met with. So it sounds very tidy, like it's a parent hotline, but it didn't work for them. And almost to a person -- that is, the mothers -- they didn't have the resources to make the phone calls.
"None have them have seen attorneys," she said. "They have no idea when they will have an appointment to be interviewed relative to their status. They have been informed of nothing."
The administration has also moved to keep the children and their parents in custody indefinitely. Under the Flores settlement, a class-action lawsuit affecting the treatment of undocumented children, the government can't hold minors in detention for more than 20 days. The Trump administration wants the courts to lift the limitation.
President Trump has requested that the Department of Defense identify bases in the United States where people can be housed -- up to 20,000 persons.
"So it sounds to me like the administration is doubling down," Eshoo said. "To think that in the 21st century that in the United States of America … the intention of the administration is to build more internment camps is so horrible that really this is a stain on the soul of America."
Children are reportedly being sent to states far away from where their parents are held. Each has its own laws pertaining to minors and care facilities, she said.
"I think the reason the administration wants to detain people on military bases is that state laws governing licensing facilities ... for keeping the kids don't apply," she said.
At the Border Patrol Processing Center in McAllen, Texas, which is run as an intake facility, Eshoo saw about 25 to 30 children in each roughly 20-by-20-foot chain-link-fenced cell and there were numerous cells lining the long hall. (News photos from 2014 show similar conditions in detention centers run during the Obama presidency.)
Once a day for a half hour, those children big enough to walk get to run around outside.
"Most of them were very small children and babies. There were a handful of adults -- women who bottle-fed the babies," she said. She doubted that the oldest was even 5 years old, she added.
As they toured the facility, members of Congress attempted to give the children little felt animals, but Border Patrol staff would not allow it.
"Border Patrol said it was the rules. I said, 'What rules?'"
"Well, we have rules," was the reply.
"'Well, who wrote the rules?'" she asked.
"You know, they have their jobs to do and they're doing it, but there's very little leeway to extend a loving hand to these little innocents," she said.
Eshoo didn't know if what the Congress members saw was staged or not. The facilities she saw were clean enough but are not comfortable.
"People are fed and they have clothes on, but they have no privacy whatsoever. The older people were just standing around and also the children, without any kind of spirit. It's so heavily laden with sadness," she said.
"The individuals that were being held had a very dazed look to them. It was as if they were almost devoid of emotion or that they were undergoing something that was obviously traumatic," she said.
At the very large facility in Brownsville, the congressional members asked if there were doctors or social workers.
"They said there were something like four social workers and there were hundreds and hundreds of people there. That's hardly enough," she said.
For Eshoo, the effects of such incarceration and separation are personal.
"I know from my own mother when she came to the United States, she traveled with her mother. … They came through Ellis Island. She was separated from her mother for about a week, and it scarred her. It scarred her. She couldn't speak any English; she didn't know where she was; she didn't know anyone there. She couldn't eat. She sobbed. She couldn't sleep.
"There was a woman. She remembered she had many tags on her, and the woman approached her and saw she had an Armenian surname. The woman spoke Armenian and she comforted my mother. Mom always said she remembered that she laid down with her on her cot and held her. And you know, she lived to be almost 91 years old and two nights before she died she was still calling out for her mother. So that trauma for children is scarring," Eshoo said.
Back in Washington, Eshoo said she will make due process her top priority.
"Most of the people we met with had presented themselves at the border seeking asylum. We have laws relative to asylum in our legal immigration system, and there are international laws that govern asylum as well. But they have not seen any lawyers," she said.
"Both Border Patrol and ICE said that there would be lawyers after they have an interview, which was confusing to me because once they have the interview they're informed whether their case is accepted or not. And if not, they are deported immediately," she said.
Eshoo said she is not against border controls.
"I believe anyone who presents themselves must be vetted. We don't want criminals, we don't want cartels and drug movers coming into the country. We have to guard our borders, but these children are not a threat to our national security," she said.
"The (administration) is not going to be able to continue these mass incarcerations if the Congress doesn't appropriate the money. I think to a member that was part of the congressional delegation to Texas, the thought was that it was absolutely essential that there be a firestorm on the part of appropriators relative to putting the money up. It's one thing to say you have policy, but if you don't have money to drive it you don't really have a policy. The appropriators really need to know what's being spent, and the Congress, again, holds the purse strings. That's in the Constitution," she said.
"This is a tremendously costly operation," she said, noting that a prior policy vetted undocumented immigrants, put tracking ankle devices on them and allowed them a hearing before deportation. It was much less costly. The administration quietly ended that program before instituting zero tolerance, she said.
"The cost of that (previous) program was something like $3.45 per day per individual. It is now something like $45 a day per individual," she said.
What can Americans do?
"However someone views this, they should call their member of Congress and let them know. There are consequences to elections, and we have elections coming up in November. Everyone -- everyone -- should use their right to vote and go out to vote because this will not change unless there is a change in the policy," she said.
On June 22, Eshoo sent a letter to HHS Secretary Alex M. Azar II asking for an accounting of how many children are being held in facilities in her district and where they are located.
"I think I have a right to that information," she said, but she added that she hasn't yet received a response.
American citizens are decent people, she added.
"I asked the translator to communicate to the mothers that, because they don't know what's happening outside the walls of where they are, that everyone in the country knows that this is taking place," she said. "The American people are good and decent. ... They are appalled by it. We believe in the sanctity of the family; that the family unit is the core of our society and of all societies. And they wept some more. They cried even more."