By Sally Beauvais, Carlos Morales, and Diana Nguyen
A crowd of more than 2,000 gathered at a border crossing in Tornillo, Texas early Father’s Day to protest the separation of children and parents who enter into the U.S. illegally.
The rural town of 1,500 has become well-known over the last several days as home to the first temporary shelter or “tent city” along the southwest border that will house a surging number of unaccompanied migrant children in the wake of the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” policy.
With signs in English and Spanish reading “Families Belong Together” and “Niños: Los amamos y no los olvidamos,” protesters from across the Southwest and throughout the country marched up and down the shoulder of the toll road leading to the Tornillo-Guadalupe Port of Entry. Less than a half-mile away, the tops of several white tents were visible over a chainlink fence on Customs and Border Patrol property. As of Sunday morning, 200 unaccompanied migrant boys ages 16 and 17 were living there. The World Cup was blaring from loudspeakers near the tents on the morning of the march.
Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke and former El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar announced the protest event late Friday evening. O’Rourke said Sunday morning that capacity at the Tornillo shelter could increase to 4,000 beds.
“But whether you’re in tents, whether you’re in a four-star hotel, if you’re not with your mom and your dad, if you’ve been taken from them, you’re traumatized,” said O’Rourke.
O’Rourke hasn’t been inside the facility. But he says the Department of Health and Human Services told him about 20 percent of the migrant children at the tent city have been separated from their parents. Family separation and the use of temporary shelters to house children are the main reasons protesters like Monica Ramirez attended the march. Ramirez, who grew up in El Paso, says it was important for her to be here.
“I’m stage four ovarian cancer,” said Ramirez. “This is what I’m doing as my last, you know, before I’m taken.”
Ramirez marched in the procession. Her sign: luchando por mexicanos. Fighting for Mexicans. She says she can’t imagine a parent being separated from their child. “They need to be together. I can only imagine the heartbreaks of the parents and these children.”
At the march, 72-year-old Douglas P. Davis sat under a shaded structure. He says he read about the march in the paper early Sunday and decided to come. “I feel guilty that my wife and I should be in church, but we thought that this was a higher calling.”
Davis’ sign, and a popular refrain at the protest that morning: “This is America.”
Reporters haven’t been able to see the detention center, but Texas officials like Republican U.S. Representative Will Hurd and State Rep. Mary González, whose districts include Tornillo, have. Hurd said the site is well maintained. There are bathrooms, showers and medical facilities. He also says there are case workers trying to place the children with family members.
Hurd spoke CNN on Sunday. He said the act of separating children from their parents is something the “administration could change. They don’t need legislation to change it.”
“This isn’t a republican or democratic issue, this is an issue about how you should treat children,” said Hurd on CNN.
Other officials attending the march included Democratic nominee for Governor Lupe Valdez; Texas state Representatives Mary González, Lina Ortega, Joe Moody and César Blanco; Gina Ortiz-Jones, Democratic challenger to U.S. Representative Will Hurd; and former state Senator Eliot Shapleigh.
Joe Kennedy III, a U.S. Representative from Massachusetts, also made an appearance.
“We fight for eachother, we fight for these kids, we fight for their parents, said Kennedy. “Not just because they have kids, but because this is the story of our country. This is the nation that we have built, and no one, no president, no administration is going to take that from us.”
The Tornillo port of entry was home to a tent city in 2016. Then, officials set up the temporary shelter site for the scores of unaccompanied children from Central America that were crossing the border.
That same year, the international bridge was named after Marcelino Serna, a Mexican immigrant who became Texas’ most decorated soldier in World War I.