Here’s what I saw at the border
On Sunday, June 24, I flew to McAllen, Texas to find out what’s really happening to immigrant families ripped apart by the Trump administration. The crisis at our border isn’t over.
I went straight from the airport to the McAllen Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center that is the epicenter of Donald Trump’s so-called “zero-tolerance” policy. The warehouse is enormous, with a solid concrete floor and a high roof. It is filled with cages. Cages for men. Cages for women. Cages for mamas with babies. Cages for girls. Cages for boys.
The girls are held separately in their own large cage. The children told us that they had come to the United States with family and didn’t know where they had been taken. Eleven years old. Twelve. Locked in a cage with strangers. Many hadn’t talked to their mothers or fathers. They didn’t know where they were or what would happen to them next. They had nothing — no books, no toys, no games. They looked shell shocked.
And then there were the large cages with women and small children. Women breast-feeding their young children. One young mother had a four-year-old child. She said she had been threatened by the gangs in El Salvador. She had given a drink of water to a police officer, and the gang decided she must be in with the police. The longer she spoke, the more agitated she got — that she would never do that, that she understood the risk with the gangs, but that the gangs believed she did it. She sold everything she had and fled with her son to the United States.
My next stop was to visit Sister Norma, her staff, and volunteers at Catholic Charities. They are truly doing God’s work. Catholic Charities provides food, a shower, clean clothes, and medicine to those who need it. The center tries to explain the complicated process to the people, and the volunteers help them get on a bus to a family member in the United States.
The longer the day went on, the more questions I had about how the Trump administration plans to fix the crisis they’ve created at the border.
My last stop of the day was at the Port Isabel Detention Center, about an hour east of McAllen. It’s one of the largest detention facilities in Texas. The Department of Homeland Security had released some details on its plan to reunify families. The release noted that Port Isabel will be the “primary family reunification and removal center for adults in their custody.”
Let’s be clear: Port Isabel isn’t a reunification center. It’s a detention center. A prison. There’s no ambiguity on this point. I met with the head of the facility. He said several times that they had no space for children, no way to care for them, and no plans to bring any children to his locked-down complex. When I pressed on what was the plan for reunification of children with their parents, he speculated that HHS (the Department of Health and Human Services) would take the children somewhere, but it certainly wasn’t going to be to his facility. When I asked how long HHS would take, he speculated that it would be weeks, but he said that was up to them. He had his job to do: He would hold these mothers and fathers until he received orders to send them somewhere else. Period.
An ICE official brought in a group of nine detained mothers who had volunteered to speak to us. Each mother told us her own story about crossing the border, being taken to a processing center, and the point that they were separated from their child or children. In every case, the government had lied to them about where their children were being taken. In every case, save one, no mother had spoken to her child in the days since the separation. And in every case, no mother knew where her child was.
The women I met were traumatized, weeping, and begging for help. They don’t understand what is happening to them — and they’re begging to be reunited with their kids.
This isn’t about politics. This isn’t about Democrats or Republicans. This is about human beings. Children held in cages today. Babies scattered all over this country. And mamas who, in the dark of night, hear them cry.
I’m still working through everything I saw. The fight for these children and families isn’t over — not by a long shot.
Elected in 2012, Elizabeth Warren serves as U.S. senator from Massachusetts.