MCALLEN, TEXAS - For six weeks, South Texas residents watched as the administration's “zero tolerance” immigration policy ripped apart migrant families in their communities. Following U.S. President Donald Trump’s executive order to reverse course and replace family separation with a policy of family unit detention, some residents breathed a sigh of relief.
Weary from images of children taken from their parents near their homes, immigrant advocates in South Texas took solace at the prospect of one dark chapter coming to an end.
“Everybody comes over here with the American Dream, but as long as they’re kept together, I guess it’s better than being separated," Rio Grande Valley resident Patricia Baez told VOA.
While Adrienne Peña-Garza, Hidalgo County Republican Chairwoman, also thought it was better for children to be kept with their parents, she had concerns about children's safety in cases where the adults they were with had a criminal history.“things that are not being shared on Facebook and our social media.”
“Did I believe they should be separated from people that aren’t their parents? That could be in harm’s way that are not in a safe situation? Yes, most definitely," she told VOA. "I think we are trying to enforce compassionate care to these kids."
Among advocates, Trump’s executive order was greeted as a narrow humanitarian victory, but they still had moral and legal concerns over the administration’s alternative plan — detaining entire family units.
Legal advocacy organizations like the Texas Civil Rights Project, which has extensively interviewed asylum-seeking parents and other migrants separated from their children in criminal court, say their work will continue.
“I imagine the day we go to court and we ask ‘how many of you had children taken from you?’ and no one stands up, then we will see that families are no longer being separated," said Efren Olivares, Racial and Economic Justice DIrector for the Texas Civil Rights Project. "If we don’t document it, then there’s no way to capture that these families were separated. They go into the black hole of bureaucracy of the U.S. immigration and ORR (Office of Refugee Resettlement) system, and there’s no telling if they’ll be reunited.”
Peña-Garza, on the other hand, would like to see Democrats and Republicans come together on immigration reform. “They’re just constantly arguing against each other and not supporting their coming to any sort of agreement," she said. "I do believe that our president is very much capable of encouraging that."
On a rainy evening in McAllen, Texas, hundreds of interfaith residents gathered to pray for the more than 2,000 children forcibly separated from their parents since May, who have yet to reunite.
“We won’t stay silent. We will be a voice for those who need to be heard," Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director for Catholic Charities in Rio Grande Valley told a crowd Wednesday.
The fifth largest metropolitan area in Texas, McAllen has a population that was 85% Hispanic according to the 2010 census. Both of the city’s representatives in Congress are Democratic. All of this makes McAllen tend towards critical of the administration's immigration policies, including the executive order.
"It’s good, but it’s late. There are many families that have already been sent back to El Salvador and other places, while the children remained here, not knowing where they were brought," Carmen Silva, a resident of McAllen told VOA.
Others vowed to hold the president accountable, and send a message of solidarity among South Texas’ diverse community.
“Sometimes this administration will say one thing and do another, so until what he says is realized, it’s important to come here and make sure that we’re out here, showing our voice," McAllen resident Maraj Kidwai said.