Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
TORNILLO, Texas – New Mexicans were among hundreds of families who on Father’s Day protested the separation of children from their parents outside a “tent city” set up as a temporary shelter for immigrant kids.
Parents, some pushing strollers, others carrying babies and small children, walked along a rural road outside this small town about 45 miles southeast of El Paso on the Mexican border. Large white tents visible in the distance behind a security fence marked the site of a federal temporary shelter for immigrant children the government set up a few days ago.
The protest crowd swelled to as many as 1,000 people from across the southwest border region, chanting “free the children” and singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Father Tom Smith, director of the Holy Cross Retreat Center in Las Cruces, led the group, gathered around the security fence, in prayer.
“The story of Jesus, let the children come to me. This is not a time to separate families, Lord, but to bring them together,” said Smith.
Nearly 2,000 children have been taken from their parents since Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered the prosecution of anyone crossing the border illegally to crack down on human smuggling and also deter Central American families from trying to cross. Many are seeking asylum from gang violence, according to lawyers and immigrant rights organizations.
“It’s a monstrous, evil policy and it needs to be changed. And it’s not going to change unless we all speak out. That’s why we’re here,” said State Rep. Bill McCamely, of Las Cruces.
Since children cannot be held with their parents in adult jails or detention centers, they are transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services, which set up the temporary shelter for “unaccompanied alien children” this week. The federal government has been coping with overcrowding at facilities for children, according to the agency.
Jeff Dray, a father and president of the Veterans Democratic Council of Doña Ana County also attended the protest.
“What they’re doing with the zero tolerance policy in arresting the parents and then detaining the children and putting them in tents in the middle of the desert is completely immoral and it needs to stop,” said Dray.
The call to action on Father’s Day came less than 24 hours earlier from U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke D-TX, who is challenging Sen. Ted Cruz in November.
U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy, D-Mass., grandson of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, made a surprise appearance at the protest where he was met with cheers as he walked through the crowd to join immigrant advocates, human rights and religious leaders speaking against separating families.
“There are many in this crowd whose families, whose own story is the same. … Jimenez, Martinez, or O’Rourke. This one is Kennedy,” he said referring to his family’s Irish roots. “We fight for these kids. We fight for their parents, not just because they’re kids, but because this is the story of our country, the nation that we have built.”
News of the tents going up near the tiny town of Tornillo galvanized opposition, including from some Republicans.
U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, whose district includes the region where the temporary shelter is located, toured the large air-conditioned tents Friday night. There are 360 beds and more could be added as needed, according to Hurd.
“At the end of the day, in the land of the free and the home of the brave, we should not be using children as deterrents when it comes to our broken immigration system,” Hurd said in an interview with an El Paso television station.
O’Rourke says the policy of taking kids from their parents doesn’t reflect American values.
“We would like to think and we try to tell ourselves, this is not America, this is not us, this is not what we do,” said O’Rourke. “But ladies and gentleman, at this moment, this is America. This is us. This is what we are doing.”