MCALLEN, RGV – U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar says parents from Central America seeking asylum will not have the children ripped from them if they cross into the United States through a port of entry.

However, two of Cuellar’s federal Democratic colleagues, Sen. Jeff Merkley and Rep. Beto O’Rourke, say border guards are blocking these migrants from gaining entry to the U.S. by standing in the middle of international bridges and telling them to go back.

“I agree with colleagues we should not be separating families,” said Cuellar, D-Laredo, at a news conference he held at the offices of McAllen Chamber of Commerce on Monday. 

U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke

Cuellar spoke in detail about what Central American migrant families should and should not do, citing relevant sections of federal immigration legislation.

“When someone is coming in through the riverbanks they are doing two things. One, they are putting themselves and their kids, in danger, the coyotes, the assaults. And, you are violating Section 1325. Therefore you have committed a crime and can be subject to separation,” Cuellar said.

“They can still ask for asylum but, my message is very simple, if you are going to asylum due to ‘credible fear,’ go through the port of entry because there, you will not violate Section 1325. They are not going to separate you because you have not committed a crime, unless you are not the parent or you have put the child in danger.”

Asked by a reporter about reports that Border Patrol has been blocking asylum seekers from entering by standing in the middle of the international bridges, Cuellar said he would look into this. Asked by a reporter about reports that the Mexican government has been asked to help stop Central Americans from entering international bridges, Cuellar said:  asked to help. “I just got off the phone from speaking to the Mexican ambassador. Those are issues that we have to be looking at.”

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley

Cuellar said it has not helped that the State Department has been slow in allocating federal dollars to the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Cuellar said that when a “surge” of unaccompanied minors came into the United States from those countries in 2014, he and U.S. Rep. Kay Granger allocated $750 million to help El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

“With all due respect to the State Department, they have not done a good job getting the money over to them. We will be addressing that issue on Wednesday morning,” Cuellar said, referring to his work on the House Appropriations Committee.

Cuellar said he would also be looking at making amendments to the laws governing the Office of Refugee Resettlement “to improve communications with parents and lawyers, when kids are separated.”

Cuellar reiterated his point that Central Americans seeking asylum should come through international ports of entry.

“My understanding is if you come through a port of entry, you have not violated the law so they cannot arrest you and they cannot separate you from your kids,” he said.

Speaking on the Rachel Maddow show on MSNBC, Rep. O’Rourke said asylum seekers crossing international bridges are being stopped from setting foot on U.S. soil.

“Now, at the ports of entry, like Hidalgo-Reynosa, or Ciudad Juarez-El Paso, customs officers who are standing at the international line are not allowing you to set foot on U.S. soil so you can lawfully petition for asylum, creating the perverse incentive to cross in-between the ports of entry. We are literally saying there is no more room in the United States. It is Catch 22,” O’Rourke said.

“If you know that you are prey to the cartels in Reynosa, Matamoros or Ciudad Juarez, you are going to get to this country. That is what I would do for my kids. It is what almost any human would do. We are punishing people, we are prosecuting them for being human and then taking their kids from them when they are their most vulnerable.”

O’Rourke said he knows of cases where parents ave already been deported back to their country of origin without their kids and not knowing where their kids are. 

Sen. Merkley was in the Rio Grande Valley on Sunday and Monday of this week. Speaking on Lawrence O’Donnell’s show on MSNBC, Merkley said:

“We have a whole new development. The border guards are now blocking those seeking asylum at the ports of entries from progressing across the bridge to be able to ascertain a claim of asylum. I could not believe they were doing this. I heard about this from the refugee pro bono workers. We went out on the bridge, a group of seven congressionals (sic). We saw the border guards there, blocking those, checking their papers and letting only just a few in during the course of the day.”

Merkley then told a story about a little girl named Andrea. 

“Her mother made it across to ascertain a claim of asylum and here is how she did it. We asked her, how did you get past the border guards. She smiled and she said, I walked with the cars instead of the people and pretended I was washing the windows of those cars until I was close enough to jump back over in line and be on American soil. She had this little girl in her arms. Secenta cinco days, born in route to the United States.”

Merkley said he asked the Central American mother why she had risked the life of her baby coming to the United States.

“My family took a loan from a bank and that private bank is associated with a drug cartel. We could not repay it. They said if we do not repay it one of us will die. They said I was marked as soon as I delivered my baby, I had to flee while I was eight months pregnant, to try to get to the U.S., to save my life and the life of my baby,” was her response, Merkley said. 

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz has joined those arguing that President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy be ended. 

“Over the past few weeks, Americans have been rightly horrified by the images and videos coming from our southern border, where tearful children are being pulled away from their mothers and fathers,” Cruz said. “There is no doubt that this must stop, immediately.”

Cruz said he was introducing legislation to do just that. His legislation is called the Protect Kids & Parents Act.”