Despite a chorus repeated again and again by Trump administration officials, accounts from detainees and their families suggest that federal immigration officials may be separating families at legal ports of entry and detaining asylum-seekers who follow every rule about entering the U.S.
The reports are emerging today from legal advocates trying to gain access to the immigrants held in the federal prison in Sheridan, Ore.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielson testified before the U.S. Senate, saying that immigrant families who seek asylum at U.S. ports of entry will not be separated under the administration's "zero tolerance" policy.
"There is no policy to separate those seeking asylum at a port of entry," said Department of Homeland Security spokesman Tyler Houlton.
"We do have a policy of prosecuting adults who flout our laws to come here illegally instead of waiting their turn or claiming asylum at any port of entry," U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a speech on June 18 in New Orleans.
But new reports made to Oregon legal advocates suggest that some of the men held there on immigration charges followed the rules and presented themselves at the San Ysidro port between Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego, Calif.
Luis Garcia, a lawyer for Marandas Sinlapasai, P.C. in Lake Oswego, says that he met with five detainees from Mexico on a visit to the prison with members of the Mexican consulate.
Garcia says all five men said they had submitted themselves to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officers at a legal port of entry, but were immediately separated from their family members and detained.
One of the Mexican men was separated from his 18-month-old daughter and wife. Garcia says the man does not know where his family is now and has not been allowed to be in contact with either his wife or daughter since being detained.
Garcia says the men recounted that they had not been told where they were in the U.S. until they arrived at the prison in Sheridan.
Ian Philabaum, program director at the nonprofit Innovation Law Lab based in Oregon, says his organization has been trying to meet with the detainees to provide legal counsel for weeks. He says family members that have spoken with the nonprofit echo reports that at least some of the men entered the country at the San Ysidro port.
National reports suggest that similar detentions and family separations have occurred at other ports of entry in the U.S.
Republican Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) asked for more details in a letter sent Sunday about DHS's family separation policy after reports form California and Texas suggested that asylum-seekers who presented themselves at legal ports of entry had been detained apart from their children.