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Lawmakers praise staff at Tucson shelter for migrant kids, question reunification process

More than a dozen state legislators toured the Southwest Key shelter in Tucson on Friday, where nearly 300 children are staying as part of an contract with Health and Human Services, including 73 kids who were separated from their parents as part of the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy.

Around 10 a.m., 15 Democratic state senators and representatives, joined by lone Republican state Rep. David Stringer, toured the Estrella Del Norte facility on North Oracle Road. The group spent around a half-hour in a question and answer session with staffers, and then were sent out to leave cellphones in their cars before they were allowed to tour the facility for another half-hour. 

Following their tour, the gaggle of state legislators spoke with the media on the facility's front lawn. 

"We are fortunate to be some of the few people who have gone inside the facility, though a lot of people have tried," said state Rep. Kelli Butler, who represents north Phoenix. "We are grateful for the staff who are working there, but we were not allowed to interact with, or see the children really."

"We were all impressed with the staff, they seem like very caring people, but I think this tour raises an awful lot of questions," said Rep. Kirsten Engel, of Tucson's LD 10. "We didn't learn anything about the reunification process, or why it's talking so long." 

"It sounds like everything is hunky-dory, but we know that it's not," said Engel. 

Engel noted that 73 kids were currently at the facility who had been forcibly separated from their parents, and that officials said that they expected to have the kids reunified by July 26, the deadline set by a federal judge. 

Last week, there were 84 kids at the facility who had been separated, which means that 11 kids were reunited with the parents. A week earlier, only two had been reunited.

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While Rep. Ken Clark, a legislator from Phoenix, agreed that Southwest Key has been doing this kind of work for decades, he said the recent "tone that is set" by President Donald Trump and Congress, "makes it difficult." 

"You have folks who could otherwise be part of the process," Clark said. "We don't get the whole picture of the process, and we as legislators should be able to see a better picture of this process. I would not doubt that the people who work here are just as afraid of the decisions being made upon high than anybody else is." 

The process is confusing to everyone and "we want to make sure that kids are reunited with their parents," said Clark. 

Rep. Denise Catherine "Mitzy" Epstein from the Phoenix-area interjected, "This is about the care of children." 

"We want to make sure that these children are really, fully cared for. Emotionally as well as physically," said Epstein. "I have to say these look like wonderful caregivers. These are people who care, or who seem to care about these kids very much, but this is not the way that things should be." 

The legislators said that things "seemed very controlled," noting that they saw kids often marshaled into lines, and that during the tour they were brought to many empty rooms despite the facility being near capacity.

"I'm horrified that we aren't working fast enough to reunify these children," said Butler. 

"I have to say I have a little different perspective than some my Democratic colleagues," said Stringer. "Apparently, I'm the only member of the Republican caucus in the legislature who came down for the tour." 

"I came down principally because I wanted to assure myself and be able to inform my constituents what is the condition of these facilities. And, I saw a very well run facility, the care being provided to these young people is I think exceptionally good." 

Stringer added that he'd worked in other juvenile justice facilities and the Southwest Key shelter was "very well run." 

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Stringer praised the staff and the facility noting that it included medical care, good nutrition, and a school for the children, "many of whom were not schooled in their home country, but are getting schooling here at this facility," he said, adding that the building also had a mural room, activities and sports. 

"It's true that they were filing to lunch in single file, but you know you visit any school in America and the kids line up and file to the lunch room, or file to their classes or what have you." 

As Stringer spoke, three members of the Democratic caucus interrupted, and talked over each other for several moments. "This is not about how clean that place was," said Charlene Fernandez, state Rep. for the Yuma-area. 

"Don't interrupt me," Stringer said. 

"I will interrupt you because you're painting a rosy picture," Fernandez replied. 

"I want to be able to assure my constituents in LD1 that the government is doing right by these unaccompanied minors," said Stringer. "It's a fine facility." 

Another legislator noted that dozens of the kids are not unaccompanied minors, but rather were forcibly separated from their parents.

"They were separated from their parents because their parents crossed the border illegally, or these children crossed the border illegally," said Stringer. "That's not the fault of my constituents. The government is going to great expense and great effort to provide good care for these children, and what I witnessed today in the two hours that I spent in this facility is exceptionally good care." 

State Sen. Jamescita Mae Peshlakai said what she was observed was "the intentional institution of these children" and said the children were being treated like "Guantanamo Bay prisoners." 

Peshlakai linked the facility to the treatment of Native American children, including the Indian Schools, which took native children from their parents and forcibly enculturated them until 1978. "We can hear about how great the government is doing, but I as a Native American person, know the history of my people and I can see it being reenacted here today: bottom line, this administration is not doing what it can for these children." 

"Make no mistake about it, this is on Gov. Ducey," said Fernandez. "It's clean, they're being fed, my colleague is right, but it's the emotional damage that we are doing to these kids, and there's no protocol for reunification." She said that Arizona's Gov. Doug Ducey needs to "step in and do something about this." 

"He needs to talk to his buddy Donald Trump, and maybe we start can work something out, and get a protocol to reunify these kids," said Fernandez. 

Fernandez said that many of the kids at the facility "had been bused in" from other parts of the border to fill what she called a "quota." 

She also criticized Stringer's description of the children at the facility, noting that a number were asylum seekers and under U.S. and international law it is not illegal to enter the country to ask for asylum. "He's a lawyer, he should know better." 

"We didn't even assess that, he didn't assess it; how can he say they are here illegally?" said Fernandez. "They are our children, all of them are our children."

SW Key shelter here set up in 2014

The Tucson shelter was established as part of the Obama administration's response to a 2014 influx of Central American children and their families. Since then, the facility's numbers have risen and fallen, but this summer, the number of children at facilities across the nation saw a dramatic spike because Trump administration officials began seeking criminal charges against undocumented parents who crossed the border, forcibly separating them from their children in the process

From May 5 to June 9, around 2,342 children were separated from their parents by U.S. officials, including infants and toddlers. 

The outrage was immediate, and within weeks of Attorney General Jeff Sessions May 7 announcement that prosecutors should seek charges, the White House wavered and on June 20, published new executive orders to keep families together by holding them in detention. 

Meanwhile, a federal judge in San Diego found in favor of a Congolese woman who sued federal officials arguing that they took her daughter from her despite her asylum status. With the American Civil Liberties Union, the woman — identified only as Ms. L. in court documents — is leading a class-action lawsuit against the government. 

Just over two weeks ago, U.S. District Judge Dana Sabaw ordered the federal government to reunite parents and children, giving them 14 days to reunite "tender age" children and 30 days to reunite children 5 to 17. 

By Thursday, in a chaotic process that had very young children placed on red-eye flights and arriving sometimes as late as 6 a.m., the government announced that 57 children out of 103 had been reunited with their parents, two days after the court-imposed deadline. 

Federal officials now have until July 26 to return more than 2,200 kids, including 73 kids at the Tucson-area facility.

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Arizona state legislators speak to the media following their tour of Southwest Key Program's Estrella Del Norte facility.